Tuesday, February 28, 2017

birthday party

On February 18th:

Dear little Anna, somewhere in the Liberian bush. 

You should be 3 years old today. My heart celebrates your birthday, even though I don't know if you made it. I cherish the memories of when you could take a bath in a bucket and you wore the tiniest clothes available, which were much too big. 

I wish you well - that you may grow into a respectable lady, bringing joy and healing to those who cross your path. 

This blogpost is dedicated to the children who never have their picture taken and whose birthdays are forgotten.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

why we need a new philosophy

"I think, therefore I am," says the Western philosopher and our worldview is based on it. 
"I belong, therefore I am," says the wise man from Africa who tells me the African worldview is based on that. It means that I am, because you are and it's relationships that count more significantly than critical thinking according to that philosophy.

Have a look at the cartoon below.
The cartoonist  expressed hope that this year will be a year of building bridges instead of walls. So far it's not looking too good. There's a lot of wall-talkDescartes wrote "I think therefore I am" in the 17th century. Perhaps in the 21st century we need some refreshing African philosophy. A healthy mix might lead to more bridges and break down some walls.

The critical thinker in me thinks she's very important, but she doesn't always make me happy. There's a kinder person inside of me with a hint of African warmth. Critical thinking is necessary, but there can be too much of a good thing. Working with Alzheimer patients, I see people who have lost their ability to think well. If they try too much critical thinking, the result is only suspicion and fear. They don't understand their environment well, so often the best I can do to help them is to make them feel like they belong: I am here, we are together, so we are fine. 
This brings peace to a troubled mind.

"Our culture is the best culture" said a Dutch politician in 2016 and this is not a member of our 'furthest-right' party. I'm sad she had to make that point and I disagree. Cultures are not to be measured or judged, but to be experienced. Then we meet each other and say: "Hey, you're interestingly different!"
Meet people, share and take away the right cocktail.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

red sand project on ice

It was a frosty morning. I had an appointment, which was cancelled, so I suddenly had time for a chilled walk. I took my phone and a bag of red sand and began looking for cracks near alluring frost covered leaves. Playing with the sand and taking pictures, it didn't take long before a couple asked what I was doing: "Filling cracks in the pavement with red sand, to remember those who fall in between the cracks of society."

I explained how IJM uses this Red Sand Project to give modern day slaves a voice. These people had obviously been disappointed multiple times in their lives in trying to do good. They kind of liked what I was doing, but they also had about every possible argument against it.

As I mentioned some examples of IJM's work in India and the Philippines, they started: "Don't you think there's some people here in our country, who are disappearing between the cracks?"

The lady had once done door to door collecting for handicapped children to be able to go on holiday. She had met with negative responses, like people arguing: "But we haven't been able to go on vacation either for several years! Why should we give money to them?"

I told her she had been brave for going door to door. Honestly, I try to always explicitly thank those coming to my door for making the effort. Some are making Christmas packs right now, for people who normally wouldn't get a gift. There are all kinds of loving people, seeing all sorts of needs. "Isn't that exciting?" I naively beamed at her.

The gentleman asked me if I really thought anything would change in this world, with all those rich directors taking all the money. Besides, the people living in poverty and war seemed to be way too many. And did IJM think about what would happen to victims after being freed; wouldn't they be back in trouble very soon? Then he started on a stroll around a patch of frosty grass, leaving me to talk to his wife.

I told her I get to hear stories every week of people who have been freed from modern forms of slavery. For those who are pulled from the cracks, these efforts do matter. And yes, IJM makes sure these people receive aftercare and education to keep them from being subject to human trafficking once more. 

Imagine if our disappointment stops us from giving; we will no longer share in the joy of seeing anything change! So with Christmas on it's way may we dare to believe in peace on earth and goodwill to all men...

...one tiny crack at a time. :)

Monday, December 05, 2016

questions for superman

Today is a happy day for many children in the Netherlands. It is the celebration of St. Nicholas, who brings them toys and candy. It is a memory making day, a day to dream of what the evening will bring. Something you'd wish for all children. Unfortunately, there are also children who are forced to use their imagination in almost superhuman ways in order to construct their dreams.

The photo links to the story of Supermaarko. (For Dutch readers, the story can be found here). It is the painful story of a 7-year-old in the Philippines, a victim of cybersex crime. A little hero who survived until help came. A hero because he tried his best to protect his little sister against bad people, when he was too small for the job.

When sharing such stories, I ask myself why I would do so. In talking about the Red Sand Project (Dutch link here, English link here), I have wondered about it's purpose: Awareness - why? What's the use?

Boys like Maarko are sold by their own parents. It is an impossible job for them to escape on their own strength. Imagine how desperate parents must be to look for such drastic measures to escape the poverty of their lives. It is because of a demand in Western countries that such 'business opportunities' can exist. That fact makes it more than a local problem and perhaps even our problem.

Awareness. Why is it a necessary ingredient to bringing justice?

There is a very simple answer. If we don't know, we will do nothing. And we can do something. We can create a positive circle of action.
International Justice Mission wants to free all slaves. It sounds like an impossible job, but the people of good will are many.

Personally, I am still getting over Maarko's question for superman: "Did you ever have to hurt the ones you loved the most?"
Is it what Maarko's mom felt she had to do? Is it what Maarko was forced to do, when he so desperately wanted to be his little sister's keeper?
It is a story of the deepest failure. It is a story of the brightest of hopes, because if hope can be restored in such darkness, then the worst of evil can be conquered. 

Maarko was abused in the cybersex industry. Now his story is used as a testimony to tell others how important it is to find boys like him. It reminds people worldwide of our collective responsibility for the children of this world. Some of them have no one who takes care of them, only people who hurt them. Those who care are not too far away to step into the story.

bubbles by Maarko through IJM,

I wrote about Liberia on this blog, a year ago in a post on bubbles:
Liberia hasn't bounced off on me like a soap bubble, I guess. The more you really meet and see people, especially those who are hurting, the more you end up a little heart-broken yourself. And I think that's a worthwhile experience.
And so it is with stories like Maarko's. They mustn't bounce off and leave us unaffected. They must leave marks on our hearts. Not just uncomfortable marks, but also prints of hope that the world can be changed. Without this hope we become indifferent, apathetic. This is the only reason that makes it worthwhile for Maarko to share his story: to involve us in freeing more children like him!

Want to get involved? Feel free to ask me how to take steps towards that! Not a career change. Just a babystep towards more hopeful stories.

Monday, November 14, 2016

how the light gets in

bringing the Red Sand Project home to share
The first Justice Conference in the Netherlands (the first even in Europe) was sold out, with 1000 people caring enough about the pursuit of justice to buy a ticket. Perhaps some bought a last minute ticket in a state of shock, having just found out that Donald Trump won the American elections. If so many people are angry today, it must be time to get together to look for the light?

Personally, I was thinking more about Leonard Cohen, by the time that I made my way to the conference. He sang: 

Forget your perfect offering

There's a crack in everything

That's how the light get in

I’ve come to cherish the cracks through the years. First, I learnt about Kintsugi, the Japanese way of repairing cracks in pottery with gold to create artistic vessels that turn out to be more valuable than the original unbroken ones. I learnt that that’s what Jesus did to my heart. Fill the scars with gold to make me more whole than I ever was. Like Cohen said, forget perfect - it gets better than that.

Sure enough, I wasn’t the only one to be thinking about Cohen. His quote ran through this weekend almost as a theme song. Gert-Jan Segers ended his speech with it, just before kicking off the Red Sand Project. Which brings me to the next thing I learnt about filling cracks.

MollyGochman is the creator of this Red Sand Project, a participatory art project that allows ordinary people like you and me to speak out for freedom and against modern-day slavery. She uses cracks in the pavement to represent the cracks in society, where we lose people through human trafficking.

Especially vulnerable are the poorest boys and girls, unschooled adults, refugees and all those who've already had a false start in life. Passed by and stepped over by society, they turn to those who are eager to 'help': human traffickers, smugglers, corrupted businessmen, slave owners, pimps.

International Justice Mission looks for these people. 46 million modern-day slaves, many in countries with laws against slavery, but little law enforcement. IJM seeks to free them and help local authorities enforce the law. Once they are free, victims are placed in a rehabilitation program, where they learn to make a living in a way that allows them to be free and dignified people once again.

So on Saturday IJM launched the Red Sand Project in The Netherlands, bringing people like you and me a creative way to spread awareness of modern-day slavery. You don’t have to know about art to join. It’s very simple. Just find a crack in the pavement and fill it with red sand, take a picture and post it on social media with #RedSandProject and @IJMnl .

You can find out here how to get your bag of special red sand. And you know, this might just be the start of you bringing Kintsugi to the heart of a little girl in India, who needs to know she is not alone.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

and the award goes to...

Something must be going well in my country when the Dutch equivalent of an Emmy gets awarded to Floortje Dessing (remember, I once mentioned her program in another blogpost?) for showing us her travels to the most remote parts of the world. She deserves it!

She traveled to Syria before and after (or rather during) the war and her footage is full of contradictions: 
The beautiful centre of Damascus, with a night life, luxurious weddings and a flourishing Dutch chocolate shop. All of that existing alongside entire neighborhoods bombed to shreds, ghost towns, refugees staying in the pretty park in the centre and the sounds of artillery.

Floortje Dessing returns to Syria

Reminders that it must be an impossible situation for the Syrians. Come to Europe and get judged for fleeing. Stay, get used to the sounds of war and live life to the fullest despite all; you'll risk the judgment of those living in safe countries either way.

These kind of programs make me rethink the way I look at the World and other people. And the way I look at my own judgments. Go gentle on others, because you don't know how you would respond in their place.

Floortje mentioned Jeroen Oerlemans in her speech after receiving her award; how people like him deserve Emmy's. On the day that she had her glory moment, this photographer had his funeral. 

Jeroen Oerlemans was killed by an IS sniper in Libya on Sunday the 2nd of October. He didn't mean to get himself killed of course. Like Floortje, he admitted to being afraid of going into war situations. He meant to get us another story, because that was his job. He considered every risk he took, was careful and tried not to do anything stupid. He was brave enough to cover front-page news, or even the ethical dilemma's behind the news, showing the insanity of his own profession (below, the story is in Lebanon after an Israeli air strike in 2006 and World Press awarded him for the photo in 2007).

Honorable Mention Prize, World Press

I'm thankful there are people in my world, who bring me other worlds. They deserve honorable mention, so I like to mention them here. They inspire. I congratulate Floortje Dessing. And I salute Jeroen Oerlemans and thank his family and friends who supported him on unlikely journeys.

Monday, September 05, 2016

look twice, think twice

It has been said that these are times when the speediness of our response is more important than listening, reading, thinking, processing and formulating a suitable answer.

This image made me stop in my tracks and look again...and again...and consider... What did the artist mean? Which image came first? Is it a trick, a joke, or is there a deeper layer still?

work of an unknown fotographer,
the idea of a portrait front on and in profile is of Erwin Blumenfeld
(source: Pinterest)

I love that it made me linger.

Things aren't what they seem. A quick response is risky in many situations. The danger of misunderstanding being that you may respond with words to be regretted.
Another risk of going too fast, is missing out. On beauty.

What I love in art is that sometimes you just don't understand. You know something worthy is being said, sung, drawn or portrayed. Something worthy of your attention. Something perhaps too wonderful to fully grasp. Mystery.

Every human being is such a piece of art. Abraham Lincoln once said: 
"I don't like that man. I'll have to get to know him better."
The humanist believes all men essentially have good intentions. The Christian believes all men have something of God hidden inside them. 
What if we found time to look for that good in one another?

Mother Theresa was declared a saint this weekend. Immediately media challenge whether she's worthy of such a title. Apparently she wasn't all good. Poor woman. She probably knew better than anyone that she was a struggling human being. She didn't ask to be worshiped. The criticism on her is the opposite of what I'm advocating here. We find someone admirable and immediately look for proof that they were flawed, so we can justify ourselves. What if we were slower to judge and more eager to see heroism in ordinary people?

I don't know if anyone should be called a saint. Such post-mortem pressure on a person! And I don't think their mistakes should prevent us from having a look at their qualities or from heeding their good advice.

Every person deserves to be seen from more than one perspective.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

remembering the Olympics in Rio

Goodbye, Rio. We've seen it once again: Brazilians know how to throw a good party. You spent a lot less money on opening and closing ceremonies than London, but your moves and looks more than make up for it. :)

I know it's easy for me to enjoy watching. I don't live in a favela. The price for Brasil to host the Olympic Games is too high for many people. Why do the Olympics so often go to countries that have bigger problems than creating an unforgettable sport's experience? The advantage of the World looking in their general direction, can hardly make up for the harm caused to locals who were brutally cleared out of their own territory to make room for guests. Neither can the smaller size of the Olympic cauldron, which was supposed to be a warning against global warming.

So many reminders, but I'm afraid the residents of Rio's slums will soon be forgotten now that the Games are over. How to thank them for sharing their city with all of us?

"Favela Morro do Cantagalo," by Baldemar Fierro of Laguna Beach, featured at the Festival of Arts
On a positive note, the World's sporters will be with us, to remind us of winning attitudes. Not just those who carry medals home.

Some of my highlights:

1. Churandy Martina ran to become 5th in the 200m Men's Final - he said with his usual big smile showing all his teeth: "I hope people who set their alarmclock to watch aren't too disappointed. I did my very best."

2. Gymnast Epke Zonderland finishing his exercise on the high bar after falling so painfully that all of Holland felt it (and he even passed out for a moment). His calm, composed commenting on it afterwards, proved him a hero too. One journalist asked him to respond to the British contestant who had appeared to be laughing at him after his fall. Zonderland said without any inclination to take offense: "You never know why someone is laughing. Perhaps he once fell off too and his coach made a comment about it to remind him."

So there, you don't have to bring home gold to be a winner!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

first times here and there

It was a great day for train travel. Some drizzly moments, not too cold, not too hot, glimpses of the sun as I waited at the station. A boy of about six was jumping around the platform with anticipation, exclaiming to passers-by: "I'm doing this for the first time in my life today!"

Oh joy, to jump on a train for the very first time! This kid was celebrating the extraordinary ordinary, giving my morning a magical twist and making me look forward to other encounters.

So on my way home, after my obligatory appointment at an exam center, I decided to go exploring. I wondered into De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, where World Press Photo 16 was being exhibited. It includes short films, one of the winners being Fatima's Drawings by Magnus Wennman from Sweden. 

Fatima tells the story of being on a refugee boat after fleeing Syria. There was a woman who gave birth to a stillborn child in the boat. Fatima saw two men throw the baby into the sea:
"It was the first time I saw something like that."
With that comment on a 'first time' I was flung back in time a few hours to the boy at the railway station. 

Such contrast: 
Fatima was about the same age as this Dutch boy, but her soul seemed so much older. His bubbly excitement set out against her solemn story telling.
His first time to take the train (my wish for any child to go on such an adventure) versus her first time to see a dead baby being thrown overboard (nobody should see that, let alone a small child!). 

What would the drawings of this Dutch boy's journey look like next to Fatima's? Perhaps the contrast there will fade again and she will draw swings without bombs....and Swedish trains.

FATIMA’S DRAWINGS from Magnus Wennman on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

ways to get a multi-colored heart

Imagine being a teenager in a community of close to 200 people, from about 35 different countries, sailing around the world. Like growing up in a little separate world within the World. I'm sure those years have impacted my life! Some would say I grew up in a protected environment, because I did not face high school peer pressure for many years. True, I was spared some of the 'average' teenage struggles, although there were other challenges.

I must have been about thirteen when an Indonesian man called Joy asked me: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
I answered that I wanted to help people in the Third World.
"Don't call them that," Joy said and most of his explanation after that must have been over my head, but it did land in my heart.

Did he go on to explain to me the Cold War origins of the expression? Did he lay out his feelings on the subject? I don't recall his exact arguments, but I've avoided the use of the phrase ever since. As a teen I understood that no one wants to come in third place like that.

Were we all equal in this multi-national community? I like to think that we were. In many ways, nationality didn't matter in this place I called home. Neither did it matter what you had studied or what your job had been before joining the ship, or what the denomination of your church on shore was. People became friends, because they simply liked each other, while not necessarily having a whole lot in common in their home countries.

There were differences too. While I used my pocket money to buy ice cream or souvenirs, my Sudanese friend used his to support his family back home. There was that kind of inequality even in our tight community: The belief among the Westerners that we NEED ice cream from time to time, especially if it's hot weather, while we had friends who worried if their family got their daily bread.
(Sidenote, on complications with sharing good stuff: One guy put his ice cream in the microwave, because he really couldn't stand the cold!)

In certain countries, some of my friends would not be allowed to leave the port area. Visa issues would cause them to be 'grounded' because of their passport nationality. Whenever this happened it hurt a little, not just for them, but also for me. Why was my friend, who really had a great personality, refused by the country we were visiting while I was welcomed? It gave me a lot to think about.

We went on a school outing to a slavery museum in the Caribbean. I paid special attention to the number of slaves the Dutch had brought over in ships, where people were packed like sardines and treated worse than that. I came to realize that my ancestors with their 'VOC mentality' had an embarrassingly large part in this.

I grew aware of the color of my skin, while having many encounters that colored my sentiments. With every experience my heart got colored stripes on it.

Perhaps my childhood was too protected, but at least growing up like this made me love the exchange of cultures. It saddens me that many Brits have voted out of the EU, because immigration terrifies them. It worries me that many Dutch citizens, once known for their tolerance, are not so open-minded in light of the current refugee crisis.

How cheering that many people who do get to know someone from a different culture, actually enjoy making new friends. Will you look someone in the eyes long enough, to let them paint your heart a little?

For more inspiration, watch the Amnesty experiment "Looking Refugees in the Eyes":