Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Beautiful Women

I met some Chechen women that I simply adore. They are beautiful in many, many ways. And since I wrote a blog entry about Chechen men, the women deserve one as well.

This is a woman whose name I can never quite remember. She is one of the women we talked to who was kidnapped. From the very first day that I met her, I was just struck first by how beautiful she is, and what a great presence she has. She has this beautiful smile and this way of communicating that while I feel shy not speaking any Russian, being around her makes me comfortable and wanting to speak. She has these two beautiful little girls, one of who has adopted me as her favorite teacher (which I don’t mind in the least). This woman studied at the University and her husband was a lawyer in Chechnya until they had to leave because of the war.

Luisa is one of the girls in the class. She is 25 years old, and she is from Grozny. How many times did I hear that in class along with “hello. How are you? I am very well, thank you. How are you? What is your name? Where are you from?” When the wedding was held for the 12 year old, we wondered how Luisa felt, being 25 and single in the culture that seemed to promote marriage from a very young age. As we talked with her, however, we realized that she felt no pressure to be married. While it would be nice, she was a big city girl, and had big plans to travel to places where she would need to ask for directions in English and find an Internet café.

This is Liza. She is 23 years old, and in love with a married man in Ingushetia. Her family, while living in Ingushetia, was also touched by the war and had to leave, and had actually only been at the center for a week before we arrived. She is absolutely beautiful, and is so quick to laugh about her mistakes, and mischievously say “Sorry, I don’t have a watch” to get out of answering a question about the time. We went swimming together in the dirty, dirty river twice. I wore a bathing suit, and she wore a dress. She didn’t mind me being so scantily clad, and wished she had one as well. We splashed about in the river, avoiding the currant and laughing at out breathe holding contest. She told me about studying Chemistry and wanting to work in pharmacology. I told her about domestic violence and being worried about starting school again. We talked about love and heartaches, and I realized that we weren’t so different at all. Even in war, all of those same things continue.

Albina is a quite, serious girl. She looks sad a lot of the time, and I think that it is because she is 12 and has a boyfriend who lives in Chechnya. Ah, the drama of it all. She loves to pose, and always wanted to be a model. She it really beautiful, and I wondered as I watched her dance, which of these young 19-25 year old men had their eye on this beautiful 12-year-old for a wife? We watched a Hindi film with her and her sisters, all of who are totally beautiful, and we tried to copy the movements of the film stars. We giggled a lot.

Marha, Madina, Jaha, Hava. Four sisters, ages nine to 15, who would sometimes mix up the Norwegian numbers with English. But other than that, they are such bright girls! They all came to classes, and would cling to us and talk in English. And they were my favorite models, each one hamming it up for the camera at every opportunity. Such sassy little misses, who reminded me of Little Women, living with their beautiful mother with a missing father. Tea with them was always a fun time, especially because then we would end up Chechen dancing.

Unka is a 9 year old and a perfect hostess. She is from Dagestan, and we aren’t exactly sure what their story is and not sure that they will get refugee status to stay in Poland. She is such a smart girl though, and one of those kids that there is no stopping. She will do anything, and can do anything. Sometimes she would take advantage of that, but we couldn’t stay mad at her for long, since she was just so good at things, and loved us to pieces.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Chechens are fun

Here is a slideshow of some of my favorite pictures from the Smoszewo workcamp. Some were taken by the kids with the cameras, some were taken by me, some were from the people in my group. These people are beautiful!!

On Love

I earlier wrote about the wedding of the 12 year old to a 21 year old. I’ve thought about it a lot, and in our group we have discussed it extensively, concerned. The legal ramifications of underage marriage are great, as are the psychological implications on this girl. We came to find out that the social workers haven’t talked to the father of the groom about the legal problems surrounding the wedding, but there is tension in the air and murmurings of concern among the Chechens. This is an odd situation to be sure. Bu they say it is True Love. As volunteers we discussed what should be done, if we should, or could do or say anything. Since we were in a privileged position as outsiders, we decided that we should express some of these concerns to the father of the groom, who had previously offered his life as an open book to us. And then some answers came that make this whole situation slightly more understandable. There are so many issues that you just can’t see right off the bat.

The bride and groom are in love. But they are both refugees, and their lives are in constant upheaval, with their legal status in limbo. The mother of the bride is returning to Chechnya, the groom and his family finally together here in Poland. In another three years when they legally could be married, who knows where they may be, or if it would even be a possibility. And so, they were married, and the girl moved in with the family of the groom. He actually lives in another room with his brothers, and so they won’t be living in the same place. And he is forbidden from touching her until she is 15 and they can have the real wedding. Also not very old, but better. But still, it just doesn’t seem right. What a life.

A continuation on love. This week, the whole case of the 12-year-old getting married exploded. It turns out that the young couple is sleeping together, so out goes the “waiting until 15” excuse (what would they say to I can’t even date until 16?). Also, everyone in the Center thinks that the whole situation is rather suspicious and not at all normal. In fact, the groom’s father refused to attend the wedding because he disagreed with it (so much for paternal respect). On Friday, the police arrived at the center and the press was tipped off about the case. Ania and Daniel were asked to write a report, to be used in court, about everything that happened, which puts them into a tight spot. For one, we were attending the wedding—are we accomplices to the crime? And what if they have to testify against this family? But despite the awkwardness, I am really glad that the police are involved because now something will be done to protect the girl, at least I hope so. The family is threatening, with all of their seven sons, that the police will take the girl over their dead bodies. WE suspect that they may escape to another country with her and where they don’t know the situation. We also found out that under Islamic law, a girl isn’t permitted to get married until she is 15, so her documents were forged so that the mullah could marry them. Saturday in the newspaper there was an article about the case, and while this one pointed out that this is an isolated incident, I worry that people will think that all Chechens are pedophiles and practice underage marriages. What a mess and I really wish that we weren’t involved. I wish I spoke Russian so I could’ve said something… but what, I don’t know.

War is romantic

10 August 2007
Chechen men fascinate me. And no, not just because I’ve mentioned a few times how good-looking they are. Chechen men, especially the ones here at the refugee center, are so interesting because they come from such a patriarchal society, and their lives are now such a contrast. Chechen men, Muslim men, men from clans and the wild caucus region—they are the ones to protect their homes and families, provide for them, and have sons to pass the land on to. With the war with the Russians, the men are losing their land, and ability to support their families, and even worse, they are losing their sons to the Russian army or tot he rebels, and then to death. Most of the families have fled Chechnya and become refugees to protect their sons and help them to survive. But here, the men don’t have jobs, and thus can’t really support their families and are in a country where they don’t understand the culture and customs. They are stripped of their pride—women social workers must instruct them on the simplest things. These men at the wedding who were acting totally inappropriate… while of course I don’t have to accept their actions, as I thought about it more, it just made me really sad and I started to understand a little bit more of what may be going on with them. They are trying to feel out the limits of their western lifestyle—what is okay, what can they do—and how life will work and how to adjust to it. Like teenagers testing the limits, they know that some things are not good, but try this western culture anyway, this drinking and dancing with close with women.

Maybe that is why they romanticize the war in Chechnya. It is a fight for everything—for their land, to defend their families, to be men, and to die, if they must, for their country. Maybe that is why I romanticize the men of Chechnya—they are very much men (I have this thing for masculinity) and they are adventurous and have experienced something so different than I have. They are so tough, and so vulnerable.

There is man who lives at the center. I wanted to post his picture, but because he is being sought after by the Russian military, I thought maybe it would be wiser not to, and I will call him the Fighter, because he looks like a Chechen rebel with a beard and that is what we were originally told. He is 20-years-old. During the first Chechen war, his father was a fighter, and so this time around, the Russian soldiers captured him and interrogated him on the whereabouts of his father. After not receiving any information from him, they told him they would give him three months to give them $15,000 and 10 machine guns or take him into custody again. So he had to flee from Chechnya and come to Poland. After he left, his brother was taken and interrogated about the whereabouts of his father and him. Before they broke him, the Fighter’s brother blew himself up with a grenade, taking Russian guards with him as well. The Fighter will live in Poland for a few years, be married and have children, and then return to Chechnya to fight, and to gladly die. Twenty years old.

Learning about the Chechens

8 August 2007
Note: Do not try teaching anything the morning after a wedding. The kids are high on candy and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning dancing. There was complete pandemonium among the children. So we went to visit with the social workers first. Fascinating stuff and I will try to compile it.

There are about 170 people, and the center has been open for about a year and three months. In all of that time, only about 5 families out of 40 have received Refugee status. While at the center, there is no cultural immersion, but in the last 3 years the social workers have had some extra training on cultural differences and they are the ones whoa re the first permanent Polish contact for the refugees. The most common cultural problems are:
∑ Lots of stress from PTSD and living in the center
∑ Relationships between men and women is different from what they are used to—the social workers are women and the men are not accustomed to having women in higher positions than the men
∑ Their attitude towards time is very lax
∑ Many times they don’t care about laws and legal implications and believe that final decisions can be changed or bought
∑ At the center, many people get married easily and fight and beat up on each other
∑ Family violence is normal
∑ Authority is respected in older people—not through education or experience
∑ Clan relationships are strong, and it is important to know who is related to whom

Domestic violence
Is there any education on DV and how do Chechens react to dv?
It is difficult because of the Muslim relations—women are completely dependent on the man, and intervention is breaking power and authority and power and honor of the man, and the woman will not go to the police to ask for the violence to stop. If the police do get involved, the woman will not request for the violence to stop for good, just here and now. Talking to the husband individually is very tricky because he can get mad that his wife told the social workers about family problems. There are very rare cases where a woman will want to leave, and in those cases the social workers will prepare a way for her to leave and go to a shelter. The concept is that a woman will lose her honor if she leaves because she won’t have a husband, father, or brother to take care of her.

Can a woman decide whom to marry? There are two ways: A father will arrange the marriage of his children with another father, or it will be a love marriage, where the children fall in love but the fathers still make the contract. Divorce is very simple for me because they can simply say, “I divorce you” three times. Polygamy is practiced because with war, many men are dying and one man will marry many women (widows) to support the women and help the nation survive.

Why are there so many single men in the camp? First of all, many of the men might be married, but their wife might be somewhere else. Secondly, there are many young men because at the age of 16, the Russian military will recruit the boys, or the Chechen fighters will kidnap them at night to become fighters. For parents, their main responsibility is to keep their sons safe and so they come here to keep them alive and from having to fight.

(This part really struck me. All of these boys, Ramzan, Mohammed… these young guys that we talk to and are practicing their flirting skills with us are ones those people. I don’t know, this part makes my heart hurt.)

Asked about the wedding and the newly weds—They will probably not be living together, but she will join her husband’s family. But in this case, there is the question of if they are legally married or not. First of all, they need written permission from her parents, and also Poland does not legally permit people under the age of 18 to be married. The social workers are very worried about the psychological impact this young marriage will have on the girl.

The social workers don’t know in advance if any new people are coming to the center, and each family will only get one room. There are no free time activities arranged, mostly because Smoszewo is so far away that NGOs don’t really come here to organize anything. If someone dies while at the center, the family can have him buried in the Muslim cemetery in Warsaw (government pays) or they can send the body back to Chechnya. Most people will send it back to Chechnya because it is good for the body to be buried in the home country.

(This reminded me of Suljeman Tulovich, who killed those people at Trolley Square—his family took his body back to Bosnia, and I wondered a little bit about why, since he had killed so many people. But that is what must be done.)

Since it rained, classes were a little bit late and we ended up with complete pandemonium and chaos with the children. But, we did manage to play ring around the rosy with them and fall down many, many times. Duck duck goose, or cat cat wolf was also really fun.

The women’s English class was fun as usual, and the girls are so eager to learn. They are really good at learning English and pick up on things really quickly. I wish I were as quick at learning Russian as they are, but of course, I am not in classes either. We taught them how to tell time, to be, to have, and the family. I really like these girls so, so much.

After class, we had a special invitation to go to dinner at Hadijas’s house. She wasn’t cooking for us of course, but her mother was, and it was so good! It was potato dumplings (kind of like gnocchi) and chicken. It was strange, the women didn’t eat with us, and I guess when people have guests, the women aren’t allowed to be at the same table as men. But they did join us after dinner, and we had a really great conversation with the women about life in Chechnya for about 2-3 hours. Wow, I wish I could remember everything that we talked about! I love those women, and they are so beautiful and open talking with us. They were also concerned with the marriage of the 12 year old, and they said that it really wasn’t a traditional wedding. They told us about their own weddings, and they were both kidnapped! I guess that is tradition in Chechnya, to kidnap the bride. Of course, she could then refuse and the guy who kidnaps her will have to pay her family a fine because he took something that doesn’t belong to him. One was kidnapped by a friend, and the other by a guy whose name she didn’t even know. But, after considering it, they both decided to accept the marriage offers. I suppose that takes out all the pains of dating, if that is what you are into. They told us also about life in Chechnya—that it was a beautiful country and a bit about their families. But now, almost everyone has lost family members to the Chechen war. The husband of one of the women lost 12 members of his family. And the war won’t end anytime soon either—there are too many natural resources, such as oil in Chechnya and the Russians soldiers are making a living taking advantage of everything and everyone there. They would like to return, but they have moved here for their children,

I can’t remember much more…

Wedding day

August 8, 2007
Well, there were no classes today. Instead there was a wedding! Hooray! I always love seeing weddings in different cultures and I guess that they don’t have to many around here so we were very lucky to have a chance to see it. Interesting day. First, let me tell you a little bit about the happy couple—the bride is twelve and the groom is twenty-one. Yes. Supposedly, they really love each other, which I am sure may be the case. But I have to say, my initial reaction of ‘that is crazy! She is way too young to be getting married’ has stuck with me. While girls of twelve may get married, it is uncommon even in Chechen culture. I thought that maybe she looked older than twelve, but she really did look like a twelve year old dressed up as a bride, the dress just a little bit too big for her.

So classes were cancelled because people were too busy and excited about the wedding. I helped out a little bit (which is ‘choot choot’ in Russian!) in the kitchen—the women cooked piles and piles of food and I peeled cucumbers. Oh how I need to learn Russian and Chechen! Or at least just Russian (which may be slightly more useful in the future than Chechen). Dobre. WE didn’t know what time or where the wedding would be held, because the groom wasn’t allowed to talk to his father the entire week prior to the wedding, nor was the bride. While we were all a bit confused, it seemed that everyone else was as well—everyone just milled around, wondering if the wedding would start at one, or two, or three. Finally, a group of men went into the bride’s building to pick her up. Five cars lined up outside, and Ramzan made us get into the cars (where were we going? No one could say.) The bride was brought down, with two escorts—the groom’s sisters. They piled into one of the cars, and with squealing tires, we were off. Dust flew up as we careened down the street, driving super fast and passing cars on the right and on the left. We had the videographer in our car—so of course we had to get shots of the others in their cars by pulling up beside them. It was a wild, wild, wild ride. I’d heard that Chechens were crazy drivers, but throw in the mix of a bunch of 20 something dudes kidnapping the bride, you can only imagine. Anyway, the destination was the market square in a nearby village, where we stopped the cars and everyone got out, and pumped up the music. Pictures were taken and then dancing ensued for about 5 minutes. And then we were off again! Luckily, no one died, although I think that my heart may have stopped beating a few times. We arrived with the bride safely in tow back at the front of the center, and everyone was there to greet us. Pictures, dancing, and then off for food.

Now, we were expecting to meet the groom at any point in time here, but it turns out that the groom isn’t allowed to participate in the wedding. I’m still not totally clear on why that is, but the bride has to be involved in everything (poor girl, standing the whole day) and the groom went to work. We were led up to a room with a beautiful feast set up on the table—rice and chicken and cakes salad cookies… mmm it looked and smelled and tasted so good! But, we were the only females in the rooms. In Chechen culture, the men and the women, unless they are family, never eat together. But, since we were guests, we ate with the men. It was interesting. My expectation was that the Chechens were Muslim, which they are, but many of the men have adopted European ways here, so the table flowed with alcohol. We’ve also heard that in Chechnya vodka also isn’t prohibited. In any case, they accepted the idea that for religious reasons I couldn’t give the champagne toast. Apple juice for me, and some of the others. Since I had expected them to abstain from drinking, I watched which ones did take alcohol and which ones didn’t. The one who had been a combatant didn’t drink, nor some of the others, while most of them were quite good at keeping their vodka, and loved encouraging Takashi to have another drink—Takashi had earlier told us that he loves vodka, and Japanese people get very red in the face when they drink, and he looked like a tomato. Unfortunately, there was one man, Adam, who decided to wiggle his eyebrows and make toasts to me all through dinner. It was actually rather amusing.

After dinner, we were invited to dance, which we did for a while, and also sat around talking, while the women went in to eat. This whole separate eating thing… well, now I’m just being ethnocentric. In any case, we then went back in to eat. The poor bride was still there, standing in the corner. Poor thing has to be standing around the whole day, watching people around her enjoying everything, while she can’t eat or talk. And we complain about the mother of the bride taking over the wedding sometimes in the states! The groom doesn’t even get to be at the wedding, and the bride can only watch.

Anyway, we went in to eat again, and the bride got to leave. Again, this was supposed to be a men’s time to talk, and we were included. I unfortunately ended up next to the eyebrow wiggling Adam, who was determined that I would take some champagne, or perhaps a little bit of vodka. Drunken Chechen Muslim men are exactly like any other drunken men, completely incorrigible. This guy has a wife and two kids (really cute ones) and he kept putting his arm around me and kissed me a few times. When he finally got it through his head that I didn’t drink for religious reasons, his grin got even bigger and called me a good woman and told me he loved me. I didn’t really know what to do except excuse myself after a while. It made me really sad—I’m sure he lived a pretty hard life there in Chechnya, and he has a little girl who doesn’t speak and he would like to send her to America, or somewhere so she could have some help. Adorable kid. But that kind of behavior is completely unacceptable and it wasn’t even cultural. Afterwards there was more dancing, and though it was traditional dance again, now that the men were drunk it just seemed a bit more aggressive. I soon left to go be with the women and kids, and that was really enjoyable. Luisa was outside and practicing her English.

All in all, it was a really interesting day, and because we were outsiders, we (as women) got to see a lot of things that we would not have usually. But I think I would have rather spent some time with the women at the wedding. Maybe when I learn more Russian… It really was a lovely, interesting, amazing day. I love talking to the people as much as I can, and there is this one girl named Albina who loves learning about everything. And yet again, Chechen men are so good looking.

Small people are angry

August 7, 2007

We went dancing! I learned to Chechen dance! The little girls really wanted to teach us to dance and show us some of their dances, so they arranged for us to come to the common room at 8 (kind of funny thinking about little kids wandering around teaching dance lessons after 8 pm when most kids their age elsewhere in the world should be in bed, but oh well). They turned on some Chechen music, which was techno. Okay, so I don’t know if the techno was really Chechen, but they did have some on a cd that they threw on that did have some Chechen music on it as well. As the kids were showing us how to dance, the older boys came into the room, and of course started showing off and inciting us to dance. So how to describe Chechen dancing? Well, in Chechen culture, because it is Muslim, the man and woman may not touch, and the woman may not look the man in the eyes. Everyone else forms a circle around the room, and the man invites a woman to dance with him, he dances about the room, kind of stomping and moving his arms from side to side, (oh I am not doing this justice at all!) the woman takes small little steps and waves her arms as well—kind of like in hula. The man directs the woman with his arms, and it is kind of a chase dance, where they never touch, but the couple dance together and it ends up looking rather sensual. This one guy, Ramzan, invited all of us to dance. I loved it! I ended up dancing quite a bit, since Maja and I were the only ones willing to dance, and I was actually pretty good, if I do say so myself. Granted, it wasn’t such a difficult dance, with the woman doing small moves and the man doing the wild stomping, and then showing off for his friends. While we were dancing with the grown boys, Ania was talking to the little girls. She came back and reported—the small people are angry. The kids were all so upset because the older people had taken over with the dancing and forbade us to dance, so we tried to include them a bit more. It was so much fun… until the men kicked out all of the children and women, and wanted to have a European dance. Now, I don’t even know what that means, but when the Chechen women and children left, I left too. I was not about to stick around in a room full of men who thought I had different standards and were expecting a lesser one from me. The little girls told us that Ramzan, the one who had been dancing with us the most, and the one with the beard who had been a Chechen fighter, were really bad and tried to live in a European way. You know, I really don’t mind dancing, and I wouldn’t have even really minded dancing in a European way (waltz style) had everyone been allowed to stay—I would’ve gladly shown people. But the fact of the matter was, the men were attempting a double standard and wanted to take advantage of us girls.
Day 2 of teaching went well. I brought out the cameras and had a short photography lesson with them and it was really fun to have them take the cameras and observe things around them to take pictures and to try taking pictures from different angles to change perspective. I think that the camera thing may be a success after all. Classes otherwise were really fun—I had like 5 little “maimas’ or monkeys hanging onto me—these totally adorable little girls who would not let go of my hands. There is this one that is like the most adorable thing I have ever seen, who will hold my hand and just look up at me with her beautiful big brown eyes and give me this smile. I have to get a picture of her doing it. But I want her as my own little Chechen child. I may have to steal her.

This is a workcamp after all, so I suppose we should work

6 August 2007

We began our first workday at the work camp with breakfast. Maja was rather surprised that at breakfast, onion was served along with the tomatoes, but she enjoyed it. We started our first lesson at 10 am. We were excited and nervous about our first day, and not exactly sure what to expect. We planned to teach the children how to say hello and good morning, the alphabet, and what is your name. The children were so good! After we threw away the whistles, the children were quiet and listened carefully, and they all participated, even the little ones! We each had a chance to teach one game, and Ania interpreted for the most part (she did a beautiful job—the kids did just what we wanted them to for the most part). Simon Says was a little confusing, but really funny to see Daniel make the letters with his body and everyone trying to imitate them. It was so cute to hear the kids asking, “What is your name?” all day long, and answering with their beautiful names—we remember Iman, Adam, Islam, Umar, Isabell, Madlena, Linda… those are the only ones we can remember now. The children paid attention so well that we feel that we should plan to teach more tomorrow.

After the English lesson, we took everyone outside to run around for a bit. We first played freeze tag, which was very fun, but kind of confusing after a while, and we weren’t sure who was “it”. After that, we decided to play a game where we wouldn’t all have to run around (freeze tag was tiring!), so we played Cat and Mouse, or Koshka I Myshka. Suvi then had her hair styled beautifully by a little girl and Maja also had her hair brushed. After about an hour, we were all so tired that we made the kids come inside with us. Maja and Ania left us to go fix her mobile phone, and the rest of us were in charge of creative time. Unfortunately, we hadn’t planned too well, so the kids just ended up drawing pictures on the floor. Tomorrow we will plan a little bit better, but I think that everyone had fun.

And then lunchtime and naptime! We all crashed—playing with kids is exhausting!

Afternoon… Maja spent the afternoon playing with the children outside with Ania and Lindsay while Daniel and Takashi taught an English class for men. The girls sang songs and played house and had a good time during this unstructured time with the kids. Daniel and Takashi really enjoyed the men’s English class—6 men attended class, mostly young single men, who were disappointed that none of the girls were helping to teach. Maybe the boy with a crush on Tina will learn enough English to finally talk to her…. The men were Istan x 2, Samil, Rahman, R.B., and Aslan. Suvi, Tina, and Natalia were greeted with “Good Afternoon”, so the class must’ve been a success. They then taught the women’s English class, which was attended by Zarem, Luiza, Albina, Madina x 2, and Liza. They were all young woman, and very open and smart! We are looking forward to this class and hope that the women continue to learn and participate. Suvi saw Medina later on in the day and we exchanged greetings—‘How are you?”

After classes, some of us continued to spend time with the Chechens out in the yard, playing singing, playing volleyball, and talking with some of the mothers. The women shared with us about life in Chechnya. We were fascinated to learn about Islam in Chechnya, and they shared with us some of their traditions. Many things changed after the first Chechen War when the Wahib, Muslim extremists from Afghanistan, came to Chechnya. The Wahib forced the Chechen form of Islam to change to a more extreme form, and encouraged suicide bombers. They also killed many Chechens. Life really isn’t fair.

We really love being here in the camp! The Chechens are so kind and so open to learning. We were told that the parents really appreciate our work with their children. These children have come from a war torn region and haven’t really had much fun. We are so glad to be here and to play with the children.

Also we like our evening talks about different cultures, especially Japanese. We laugh so much during our, evening lessons, we just love it! In japan, instead of a ghost saying boo! They say kiaaa! Which is actually a lot scarier I think.

the plight of refugees in Poland

5.8.2007 Day 2 Smoszewo

Exhausted. Today we spent the entire day planning for the upcoming weeks. Well, actually we had an overview of the situation here at the refugee center—more correctly an asylum center, because the people here don’t have refugee status yet. So, the path goes like so—the people left Chechnya and Poland is the first country in the European Union (as in it is a designated refugee entrance point from, at least from the east). So they arrive at the border of Poland after a long and expensive journey—legally with a passport, or illegally smuggled, but in any case, an expensive one. At the border, they have their first interview, and request refugee status. They are then sent to the main refugee center in Warsaw, where they have a more extensive interview where they are asked to prove that they qualify as refugees—legally, that they have a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and must be seeking shelter in another country. Most of the Chechens say they are fleeing because of the war, but really, that is not reason enough (at least not politically). They must then prove that they have a real fear for being persecuted because of their nationality, Chechen. To give you an idea oh how easy this is, a woman told that soldiers had raped her. She was not granted refugee status because, according to officials, rape does not qualify as persecution, but rather a criminal offense. What?!! So yea, 90% of the applicants will receive a negative response. Those who receive refugee status receive assistance for a year. The remaining 90% end up in two categories: tolerated status or negative. Tolerated status, or “Status B’ means that you can stay in the country and have permission to work, but nothing else, no assistance. The working becomes rather difficult in this case because you can’t get a job unless you have a home, and you can’t have a home if you have no job and money. Catch-22. The negative status is that you need to leave the country. However, there really isn’t a deportation process here in Poland. Many refugees, whether granted refugee status or not, want usually escape to other countries, because the opportunities are simply better in other European countries. Learning about the status of refugees and the process here in Poland is interesting, since it differs from the United States quite a bit.

So we had a meeting set up with the entire center this evening, but initially, only children showed up, which was disappointing. Well, since we will be working mostly with the kids, we introduced our plans and ourselves and then started in on some games with them. Slowly but surely, the adults started popping in—just couldn’t seem to resist. It was really fun to play things like fruit basket with them and teach these darling kids orange and apple. I think a few little girls have adopted me as their pet. Which is fine because they are teaching me all sorts of Chechen words—like “maima’ which means “monkey”. The foreign language part of my brain is switched on, and when I want to say something to them and I don’t know the word in Russian, Polish or Chechen (which is most of the time) it wants to come out in Spanish. Tomorrow we start with classes! Hooray! I’m a little nervous, because I am going to be the main teacher in the adult women’s class. I’ll start doing some of the photography stuff in a few days, after we get a feel for how our days will be going.

So we have this awesome Japanese guy in our group, Takashi. He has traveled around Russia and the Ukraine and Uzbekistan and everywhere, and is fluent in Russian. Well, Russia isn’t exactly the safest place in the world to travel, and turns out that he has been arrested for two weeks because the Russian officials thought that he was a Chinese drug runner and wouldn’t believe him when he tried to convince them that he wasn’t even Chinese, much less a drug runner. And then he was kidnapped by Russian skinheads (who are really dangerous and really prejudice). He told us this story of how he was in St. Petersburg and these three skinheads grabbed him and took him with them. At this point in time he was 19 and didn’t speak much Russian. They tried to get ransom for him from the Japanese embassy, but he wasn’t sure how much they asked for him. He spent three days at their house watching Russian TV, and then when they were asleep one night he escaped and hitchhiked to St. Petersburg. Scary story, really when you think about it, but, Takashi told it in such a matter of fact, undramatic way that it was really hilarious. You just had to be there to hear him saying, in his Japanese accent, “yeah I escaped from them and hitchhiked to St. Petersburg and that is when I was really afraid.” Hmm, for some reason it made us laugh a lot, but now it just sounds scary.

Anyways, time to sleep so we have energy to work with the kids tomorrow. We have this great neighbor names Aslan who brought us a TV so that we would have some entertainment. Everyone is so nice! A di quol! (Totally phonetic spelling for good-bye in Chechen).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Meet the Work Camp

August 4, 2007. Smoszewo. Or, tiny village about 50 km from Warsaw. Population 150, with about 160 refugees, and now plus 8—our little contingency of work campers. So, I left Krakow early this morning. Krakow was really a beautiful city, and I so enjoyed wandering about on my own, just soaking in the city, and stopping by periodically of my street musician friend, Marek, to chat until he had to start performing again.

I arrived at the train station in Warsaw, and wandered outside, not really sure what I was looking for (the directions were to look for a bus out front of the station and which should leave at 10:50 for this village. Why a bus was going directly to this village of 150 four times a day I do not know. But I am glad that it did because the other option was to get off at the next closest village a few miles away and walk, and I think I would have dropped down dead on the side of the road.) Anyways, while looking for the bus I saw a girl with a large backpack looking equally lost, and so I figured she must be going to the same place. I stammered out “Are you going to Smoshosomsmm….” And she, understanding this mishmash of sounds, said yes. Meet Tina, from Slovenia. She had just arrived from a few days in Prague and is currently a student in Slovenia, studying Social Pedagogy (which is like psychology and Social Work). Super nice, laid back girl. We finally found the bus (really, just in front of the station like we had been told, but still, you know when you are in a foreign country and you don’t know where you are going, you get totally panicked that you are going to miss a vital step. Maybe you don’t, but I do.). On the bus we met Maja, from Croatia. She works as a work and education counselor there. The three of us had a delightful time getting to know each other a bit and speculating about the camp—what it could possibly be like. And then we arrived…

Smoszewo is a little farming town, right next to the Vistby River, which runs almost through all of Poland. There are little farms and some houses (30 maybe? I’ll get a better count sometime this week), each of which had a few little barking dogs in the front yard. It is very rural and idyllic. I look forward to some nice, contemplative strolls to explore the flora of the region.

The camp itself is made up of a few apartment buildings (small ones) with a common canteen where the meals are prepared—however, Ania (one of the coordinators, from Poland. She speaks Russian really well so acts as an interpreter) said that often, to make this place more homey, the mother will go pick up the food and take it back to the flat so that she can prepare the food herself and they can eat as a family. I think that is good. We live in one of the buildings, which also happen to double as an old folks home. I’m not sure I would’ve put together Chechen refugees and old folks, but hey, it seems to work out well. The first people to great us were, of course, the children, gabbing away in Russian and Chechen (Chechenski). So, you know how I joked about finding myself a Chechen refugee husband? Well, I had no idea that Chechen men were so good looking! I am serious; the young men in this center are incredibly cute. Good thing men and women don’t interact at all, otherwise I might just have been brining home a Chechen boyfriend-kidding dad, just kidding.

Today has been spent pretty much just getting settled and getting to know each other. I am so impressed with this group and think that we will have some good dynamics. Everyone has done something with refugees before and is really excited to be here—although, what else would you expect from people who voluntarily sign up for a work camp with refugees? My type of peeps. Daniel is the other facilitator, and while he doesn’t speak Russian, he has been working with refugees and SCI for 4 years and so has tons of knowledge about the situation here. The other members of our group of 8 are Takashi from Japan, who taught Japanese at a Russian University is like a Russian expert (in my eyes); Lindsay from New York, who is the young one of the group and spent a year on an exchange program in Poland so she speaks Polish, and Natalia, who is also Polish and just finished her degree in Refugee studies. I’m so excited to get to know everyone in the group and most especially to start doing some teaching! The kids were teaching me Chechen words today (mesh=hair) and I must say, it makes me giggle quite a bit. I will probably be hopeless at learning anything, since I am trying to pick up Russian, Chechen, and Polish at the same time and I can’t even tell the difference at this point! But it’ll be fun. This place is beautiful.

pictures of Auschwitz

I thought I would include some pitcutres of Auschwitz to go along with the blog I wrote a while back. Not a happy place so i didn't take pictures in color.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Two tons of hair and 43,000 pairs of shoes

Auchwitz Birkenau is not a happy place. I'm sure you don't need to be told so, but I feel I must say it. It is not a happy place. Systematic, brutal death of over a million European Jews and over 500,000 others. From the soon-dead, they stripped their clothes and shoes, 43,000 of which I saw leftover when the Nazi's left the camp. They seperated them from their families, and when they were done with that, they sent them off to the showers where they were showered with cyclone B. They killed with incerdible efficiency-- 1500 people dead in 15 minutes. From the dead women, they cut off their long hair, often done by the hand of Jewish me from the same transport. I saw this hair, two tons of it. It had been waiting to be shipped off to make fabric and mattresses. When i say it is not a happy place, I mean my skin has goosebumps and there is simply a cold, dark feeling, even in the bright sunlight.

Auchwitz-Birkenau is not a beautiful place. It was built (or converted from other buildings) to become a death camp, to exterminate an entire group of people and then some. It was designed as a place of disease, inhumane treatment. Of freezing cold and stifling heat, human beings packed as tightly as possible and then more. When it was built, it was designed with not enough toilets, no running water, and no heat. Each prisoner was allowed one minute, twice a day to use the toilet. Mind you, there were rows of holes with no privacy and diarehea rampant. If you passed over your one minute, you could be shot. So much for those with stage-fright. When I say that iw as not beautiful, I mean it was a palce that had no right to exist in this world and had nothing, nothing that could redeem it. Across the barbed wire, there were trees and flowers. Inside, the only thing of beauty were the souls of the people who were forced there.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was powerful, but not because it was a strong place. The control exercised by the Nazi's was brought on by fear, exploitation, mistrust, hate, and lies. It evoked a powerful feeling because it exhibited all of that. Yesterday, I explored a number of churched int he old town of Krakow, all of them still functioning. Boasting histories of hundreds of years, continual worship, and ornate splendor, today I had to wonder where was their power and splendor when all of this was happening a few miles away. They (we) speak of a God of love, mercy, all-powerful, omnicient, full of truth and beauty. Auschwitz was the exact opposite of all of the. I know God allows bad things to happen to good people-- but this bad? And what about all the other people who lived and worshiped in these grand churches? I know it is easy to sit here, be able to see it all 70 years seperated, and leave, and judge the people before. It is shocking I think because is it so recent, and so close-- people of Europe-- educated, cultured, and yet so many fo them involved in this systematic brutality. It is frightening because what is to stop it from happening now? And it does.

This place. THis place... I went because I wanted to remember, to be a witness and have yet another reasont o be convinced that I must do something human. And I am never coming here again.