2020
April
16
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

April 16, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

To get groceries, America is now thinking inside the box

Today’s issue looks at how Arab doctors are earning praise in Israel, the broader ripples of President Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organization, how the food supply chain is adjusting to prevent shortages, how one woman supports fellow abduction survivors, and the enduring elegance of Sidney Poitier.

As trips to the grocery store have become fraught, Americans who are staying home have sought other ways to fill their fridges and cupboards. 

For many, that has meant turning to delivery services by mainstream grocers or online giants like Amazon. But those avenues, too, have become extremely difficult – if not impossible – to navigate, with the flood of customers overwhelming the systems. I myself have tried – and failed – for two weeks to set up an order (I’m out of milk). It’s a virtual logjam

But some quarantined consumers have begun thinking out of the box. Or, well, in a different box: a CSA box. 

CSAs – community supported agriculture programs – deliver food fresh from local farms directly to customers’ kitchens in a sort of subscription model. The box contains a smorgasbord of goods that the farmer has readily available depending on the season.

“We’re seeing a massive spike in the CSA,” Dave Dumaresq, founder of Farmer Dave’s in Dracut, Massachusetts, told The Boston Globe. Normally his farm sees around 300 CSA subscriptions a season. That number has already risen to 500. Other farms have had to institute waiting lists. Some have broadened their offerings to include a shorter-term subscription option.

This seems to come as part of a broader movement to support local businesses. And, more specifically, as the Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson wrote earlier this month, the pandemic may also be prompting Americans to see new value in local foodscapes.

Furthermore, as Michael Hopkins explores in today’s edition, America isn’t short on food. We’re just rethinking how to get it to our plates.

In Israeli war on coronavirus, Arab doctors rush to the front

As societies confront an enemy that doesn’t discriminate, there is growing praise for leadership and sacrifice. In Israel, the prominent role of Arab health care professionals is gaining appreciation. 

Eva

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Over the past decade, Arab doctors and nurses have become a more familiar presence at Israeli hospitals. But the pandemic has shown them in a new light: as essential foot soldiers and field commanders in the country’s struggle against the coronavirus.

That comes, ironically, at a fraught political moment. Even as Arab Israelis have strengthened their parliamentary representation, they repeatedly have been the objects of hostile rhetoric from Israel’s right.

Yasmin Diab, who shuttles between her home in an Arab village and long shifts on a coronavirus ward in Haifa, says she doesn’t regret taking on the risky job. “I believe this is a mission,” she says. “We are on the front line of this war.”

Noting that Israel’s fight to save lives would be “fatally compromised” without Arab professionals, a Tel Aviv University think tank’s policy brief urged “an end to exclusionary and racist discourse and statements that call into question Arab loyalty.”

Dr. Diab says Israelis have reached out to her on social media to thank her for her work. “People are looking at us differently,” she says. “I hope this isn’t temporary. I hope it’s the beginning and there will be equality between us.”

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1. In Israeli war on coronavirus, Arab doctors rush to the front

Yasmin Diab shuttles daily between self-quarantine at her home in the Arab village of Tamra and 24-hour shifts at Rambam Hospital in Haifa – the largest in northern Israel – where she was the first doctor on the coronavirus ward when it opened in March.

Because of her work with coronavirus patients, Dr. Diab cannot have physical contact with her family – her birthday recently came and went without a hug from her parents. The stresses of work make it harder to sleep.

Still, the internal medicine resident doesn’t regret the decision to volunteer for a job that puts her and her family at risk. “I believe this is a mission,” she says. “We are on the front line of this war.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

With a stethoscope draped around her neck, Dr. Diab delivered a round of poised interviews to several Israeli news shows in the early weeks of the crisis. But she is just one of the tens of thousands of Arab health care professionals putting themselves on the line in Israel’s battle against COVID-19.

Though Arab doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have over the past decade become a more familiar presence at Israeli hospitals and state-supported HMO clinics, the pandemic has shown Arab Israeli citizens in a new light: as essential foot soldiers and field commanders in the country’s struggle against the virus.

That elevated stature comes, ironically, at a particularly fraught moment in Arab-Jewish political relations.

Even as Arab Israelis, one-fifth of the population, have strengthened their parliamentary representation via a new alliance, the Joint List, they repeatedly have been the objects of hostile campaign rhetoric from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Leading up to the March 2 election, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party sponsored billboards that warned Israeli voters against an alternative government that would include or rely on the Joint List, which the prime minister and his allies portrayed as “terrorism supporters.”

In an effort to push back on that sentiment, a new television commercial sponsored by Arab health care workers features a montage of portraits of Arab doctors and nurses. “It’s about time to acknowledge: Arabs are also partners in the country. Partners in destiny, partners in governance,” the commercial concludes. 

Jewish Israeli attitudes may be evolving. Increasingly, there are calls in Israel to shift budgets from military interests to the public health battle. And there are calls to recognize the Arab Israeli contribution.

“This is the first time that Israel is conducting a war and [that] the Arab citizens have been recruited,” says Eran Singer, Arab affairs reporter for Kan, Israel’s public broadcasting company, alluding to the fact that most Arab citizens aren’t obliged to serve in the army. “It’s quite amazing that it happened so soon after the elections.”

The prominence of Arabs in Israel’s health system reflects an effort by many to move into the mainstream, despite decades of discrimination and marginalization. Over the past two decades, as rising numbers of Arab youth have pursued higher education and sought to integrate among Israel’s middle class, many have chosen to become health professionals.

According to official government data published in the daily Haaretz newspaper, Arabs now make up 17% of the country’s doctors, 24% of the nurses, and 48% of the pharmacists.

“The system would collapse without the decisive contribution of Arab medical staff,” said Raphael Walden, deputy director of Sheba Medical Center, the country’s largest hospital, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 television news.

Opportunity “not to be missed”

The pandemic has broadened recognition of the Arab Israeli health care contribution to national security experts.

Noting that the fight to save lives would be “fatally compromised” without Arab professionals, a recent policy brief by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Tel Aviv University think tank led by former military top brass, urged the government to create a “positive basis” for “full integration” of Arabs in Israeli society and for “an end to exclusionary and racist discourse and statements that call into question Arab loyalty.”

“This is really an opportunity that’s not to be missed,” says Meir Elran, an INSS fellow and former general who co-wrote the paper. “It’s very difficult to find a light in this tunnel. But there’s more than a chance that this can make a difference.”

Still, for all the progress achieved by Arab medical professionals, Israel’s health services are harder to access for the Arab population. Arab towns are located, on average, nearly twice as far from hospitals as Jewish towns, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

Early on in the pandemic, it became apparent that fewer coronavirus tests were being administered among Arabs, and that informational material about COVID-19 wasn’t even available in Arabic. As of April 16, the Health Ministry reports that only about 459 of Israel’s some 12,591 COVID-19 cases, or 3.6%, come from Arab towns. The Palestinian Authority reports another 81 cases in East Jerusalem.

The underrepresentation stems from the initial emergence of the virus here among Jews who have limited interaction with Arabs, says Dr. Mohammed Khatib, databank director of the Galilee Society, a center focusing on health policy among Arabs. Israeli coronavirus policy needs to be better fine-tuned to Arab communities and lacks input from Arab public health professionals, he says.

Dr. Diab, who dons bordeaux-colored scrubs worn by the staff on the Rambam coronavirus ward, estimates that about two-thirds of the doctors on the ward are Arab. She says she considers the staff – whether Arab or Jew – like a second family. Her parents, religious Muslims, worried about the risk of infection but ultimately supported her decision to volunteer.

“They believe that God will do what is necessary,” she says. “In the end, they trust me.”

As for her Jewish patients, “I always get smiles from them. They aren’t insulted or surprised to have an Arab opposite them. I’ve never felt anyone treat me differently because I’m an Arab.” While not unheard of, she says, that’s a rare phenomenon at the hospital.

Dr. Diab says she has kept in touch with Ariel Grabois, a ballroom dance instructor, who was one of the first patients on the ward. Released after recovering from the virus, Mr. Grabois describes the medical staff on the ward as “dedicated” and “top notch,” and says he hopes the pandemic prompts Israelis to look beyond identity politics.

“You have to put those things aside,” he says. “The virus doesn’t distinguish between Arab and Jew. I hope this will make people look at things differently – less in terms of [demographic] sectors.”

“We’re all in the same boat”

Indeed, inside Rambam Hospital, the collegiality and collaboration among the Arab and Jewish staff is a marked contrast to the public atmosphere elsewhere in Israel, says Mogher Khamaisi, the hospital’s Arab Israeli director of internal medicine, who oversees a ward of patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

Arabs, who make up much of the senior staff, volunteered for the coronavirus work out of a sense of professional duty. “They want to take an active role in the effort,” says Dr. Khamaisi.

“It’s true that [Israeli politicians] ignore us ... and the prime minister speaks against us. On the other hand, the doctors here do our work regardless, without expecting any favors. People should see that we’re all in the same boat and that our contribution is critical,” he says. “But I fear that in another half year, everyone will forget, and we will return to being second- and third-class citizens.”

Dr. Diab sounds a more hopeful note. Lately, more individual Israelis have reached out to her on social media to thank her for her work. “They think that what I’m doing shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

She says she’s always tried to rise above the national differences in Israel, and focus on individuals as humans instead of Arab or Jew. And while she says she isn’t particularly interested in politics, it bothers her when she hears some insist that Israel is only a Jewish state. Maybe dealing with the coronavirus will change that.

“Ultimately we live in the same country, and we all need to be equal,” she says. “The fact is that we are now more equal, because we are on the front lines of the corona battle, and people are looking at us differently. I hope this isn’t temporary. I hope it’s the beginning and there will be equality between us.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Beneath Trump-WHO spat, a US-China race for leadership

Was the World Health Organization too uncritical of China? Its power to challenge member states is limited, say experts, and withholding U.S. funding amid the pandemic only opens the door to greater Chinese influence.

Eva

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President Donald Trump’s attacks on the World Health Organization are consistent with his criticism of and withdrawal from international organizations and agreements. But the U.S. row with WHO also underscores what many experts say is a troubling lack of global leadership for addressing the coronavirus pandemic, a challenge as grave as anything the world has faced since World War II.

The president’s critics say the move against WHO fits a pattern of Mr. Trump seeking to shift blame for his own failings. But experts in global health say a broader concern is that the withholding of funds sends a terrible message, in particular to poorer countries that even in more normal circumstances depend heavily on WHO.

And if Mr. Trump’s aim in suspending WHO funding is to hold China responsible and counter its quest to come out of the pandemic looking like a leader, the approach is likely to backfire, some say.

“Paradoxically it may be that the Chinese become a bigger player” in global health if they move to fill the void left by a U.S. pullback, says Stephen Morrison, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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2. Beneath Trump-WHO spat, a US-China race for leadership

Late in February, when President Donald Trump was still minimizing the impact he anticipated from the coronavirus on the United States, he had only glowing remarks to make about the World Health Organization’s role in checking the new global threat.

Along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WHO was “working hard and very smart” to help the world bring the novel coronavirus under control, President Trump tweeted Feb. 24.

But these days, with the U.S. topping the list of countries with the most reported coronavirus cases and counting more than 33,000 deaths from COVID-19 – and with criticism mounting of the slow and uncoordinated early response to the pandemic from the White House – the president’s messaging about the United Nations’ premier health organization is very different.

On Tuesday Mr. Trump announced from the Rose Garden that he was suspending U.S. funding for WHO – about $450 million annually, or just over 20% of its budget – and railed against the institution charged with promoting “the health of all peoples” for causing “so much death” by its “mistakes.” WHO had failed to warn the world of the seriousness of the new virus early enough, he said, when it could have made a difference.

Moreover, the president charged WHO with abetting China in a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus’s origins and subsequent cover-up of the outbreak – actions Mr. Trump said worsened the impact of the virus outside China.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Mr. Trump’s attacks on the U.N. structure’s global health agency – created along with so many other multilateral institutions as part of a postwar, U.S.-led international order – are consistent with his criticism of and withdrawal from international organizations and agreements. But the U.S. row with WHO also underscores what many international experts say is a troubling lack of global leadership for addressing a challenge as grave as anything the world has faced since World War II.

The president’s critics say the move against WHO fits a pattern of Mr. Trump seeking to shift blame for his own failings somewhere else.

But experts in global health issues point to a broader concern, saying Mr. Trump’s action sends a terrible message to the world. In particular, they say, to poorer countries with weak health infrastructures that even in more normal circumstances depend heavily on WHO for everything from malaria and polio-eradication programs to maternal and infant health campaigns.

“One of the things the WHO has been very good about is channeling resources to the global south, to countries with fewer resources to address a challenge like a pandemic, so [cutting WHO funding] will be particularly poorly viewed in those countries,” says Ian Johnstone, a professor of international law and expert in international institutions at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts.

“It sends an unfortunate message – one the Trump administration has communicated from the beginning – that it doesn’t have much faith in international organizations and is reluctant to engage in international cooperation.”

Unintended consequences

And even some who are more supportive of the president and share some of his skepticism toward large international bureaucracies say the middle of a pandemic is not the time for the single largest contributor to WHO’s budget to halt funding.

The time to evaluate WHO’s shortcomings in terms of the pandemic will come, they say, but cutting funding now will only weaken any support the U.S. might have garnered for reforming WHO.

Moreover, the Trump administration’s efforts to hold China responsible for its early cover-up of the virus outbreak will be undercut by defunding WHO, says Brett Schaefer, an expert in international institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The U.S. has taken pains to counter Chinese disinformation and focus the world on the fact that Chinese actions and inactions facilitated the spread of COVID-19 and impeded the international response, leading to enormous loss of life and economic hardship,” says Mr. Schaefer. “Those efforts will be immediately overshadowed by an announcement that the U.S. is cutting funding to the WHO even as other nations, both developed and developing, are expressing anger toward China for its role in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Others say it is simply unrealistic to expect an international organization like WHO, which serves its member states and has very little authority to impose measures on them, to come down hard on a global power like China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping “is pushing the narrative that ‘I intervened and I stopped this inside China,’ and there’s no way that WHO can contradict that,” says Derek Scissors, China scholar and U.S.-China relations expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“It would be like the [International Monetary Fund] contradicting the U.S. government on its economic reporting and forecasts,” he adds. “You’re just not going to have an international organization like that contradicting its most important members.”

Health experts close to WHO say its officials, including Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, are frustrated that many of the organization’s 194 member states have paid little heed to the global emergency declaration it issued Jan. 30 and subsequent guidance for addressing the pandemic.

Mr. Trump accuses WHO of being slow to inform the world of the gathering threat, but in fact Director-General Tedros, as he is known, has held nearly daily briefings on the health emergency since late January, often issuing guidance and stark warnings on the consequences of not taking swift mitigating actions.

A check on China

Some global health experts say there was a time when the organization did act quickly and decisively with China to halt the spread of a threatening virus. They point to the tough, early actions that former WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, a no-nonsense former prime minister of Norway, took in 2002 that are credited with limiting the reach of the SARS epidemic.

Despite the director-general’s lack of authority to investigate and censure WHO member states, Ms. Brundtland went ahead and held China’s feet to the fire anyway. And now WHO and Ms. Brundtland are widely credited with keeping SARS in check and limiting deaths worldwide to under 1,000.

But Mr. Scissors says the situation in 2002 was quite different, in particular because China was still not the political and economic bigfoot it is today. Others say Ms. Brundtland carried weight as a former prime minister that Mr. Tedros simply doesn’t have.

In any case, if Mr. Trump’s aim in suspending WHO funding is in part to counter China and its quest to come out of the pandemic looking like a leader, the approach is likely to backfire, some say.

“Paradoxically it may be that the Chinese become a bigger player” in global health if they move to fill the void left by a U.S. pullback, says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Noting that the pandemic is entering a “new phase in which we’re going to see higher impact in low-income countries … in Africa and Asia where WHO remains a central player,” Mr. Morrison says China coming to WHO’s financial rescue now could further muffle any criticism of China’s role in the pandemic.

“The WHO has to be deferential” to its member states,” he says. “It’s deferential to the U.S., and it’s deferential to China.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

No, we’re not running out of food. It just looks that way.

Panic buying at supermarkets spiked in the first weeks of COVID-19 lockdowns. Information that could ease fears was in short supply – but as buyers and suppliers learn more, everyone is is adapting.

Eva
Tom Brenner/Reuters
People waiting in a socially distanced line outside of the 14th Street Trader Joe's grocery store are reflected in a window following Mayor Muriel Bowser's declaration of a state of emergency due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Washington April 14, 2020.

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As restaurants shut their doors to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Americans have been shopping more for groceries and eating at home. Everyone has seen the empty supermarket shelves, particularly during the first week of state-ordered lockdowns. Those scenes, coupled with recent reports of dumped crops and milk, have jolted shoppers who fret about food supplies going forward. 

In the food industry, a rapid adjustment to this unprecedented shift in demand is underway. And while some items are in short supply, the prospect of an overall shortage of food is far-fetched, say industry experts. Sure, shoppers may have to substitute brands and food items. But there is still plenty of food to go around, and logistical bottlenecks are easing. 

“I think we’re overreacting,” says Chris Mejia-Argueta at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I am very certain we’re not going to run out of food.”

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3. No, we’re not running out of food. It just looks that way.

Mountains of rotting squash in Florida. Midwest dairy farmers pouring milk down the drain. A South Dakota pork processing plant ordered to shut down after 400 employees tested positive for coronavirus.

Then there are the empty supermarket shelves where the flour and yeast ­– and toilet paper – used to be. It’s enough to make a shopper worry if there’s enough food to go around.

“I think the entire American public is getting a lesson in the supply chain,” says Mike Troy, editorial director of Progressive Grocer. “I bet they wish they weren’t.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

They might especially wish they weren’t if they knew, say food supply experts, that the lessons they’re getting are likely wrong.

“I think we’re overreacting,” says Chris Mejia-Argueta, director of the Food and Retail Operations Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, referring to reports of disruptions to the food industry. “I am very certain we’re not going to run out of food.”

Still, he understands why people may feel anxious if they don’t grasp exactly how the food supply chain is adapting to meet the crisis and simply see headlines about rotting vegetables and shuttered slaughterhouses. “It’s human nature to worry about things that are a mystery to us,” he says. The “black box” aspect of the food system “creates uncertainty. And uncertainty leads to hoarding and fear.”

Those feelings were on display last week in a Massachusetts supermarket where a woman wearing a face mask rooted at the back of near-empty shelves of dried beans. She rolled her cart down the aisle, then scooped up a couple dozen cans of black beans, pintos, kidneys.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Food supply chain expert Chris Mejia Argueta, director of the Food and Retail Operations Lab at MIT, poses by his home, on April 7, 2020, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He says better understanding of the supply chain can help prevent hoarding.

“Emergency beans,” she told an onlooker. “Can’t have enough. ... Or maybe this is too much?” She moved as though to put some back, but then thought better of it, and shrugged. “Nah. Could be last chance.”

To reduce such uncertainty, says Mr. Mejia-Argueta, “we have to remember that the episodes we’re hearing about are local, and expected.”

Stockpiles and substitutions

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration insists there are no nationwide shortages of food, though inventories may run low in grocery stores before restocking. “Food production and manufacturing are widely dispersed throughout the U.S. and there are currently no widespread disruptions reported in the supply chain,” it reported last month.

None of which means that grocery shopping will feel normal any time soon. Hoarding should fade as at-home stockpiles have been built. But shoppers may still need to substitute, says Mr. Mejia-Argueta. When a favorite Italian pasta is absent, a store brand will have to do. Instead of Cheerios, we’ll eat oatmeal. Substitution helps the supply chain by spreading demand more evenly across a store’s stock.

Grocery retailers and the supply chain as a whole are busy adapting, too. They are figuring out how shoppers respond to variable supplies of items and how much they need to stock and to put on display. And, by knowing in advance what’s available from their suppliers, they can use promotions to nudge shoppers to choose some products over others, “without us even knowing it,” says Mr. Mejia-Argueta.

Before the pandemic, 54% of U.S. food dollars were spent on meals away from home. Now suppliers are scrambling to redirect food from restaurants and food service to retailers for at-home eating, a sudden and unprecedented shift in consumption.

From auto parts to flour cargoes

Take bacon, for example. Doug Baker, an executive at FMI, the food industry association, points out that “the 20 pounds of bacon intended for food service may be repackaged under a store brand in 1 pound consumer packages.” But that doesn’t happen overnight.

Likewise, logistics resources are being diverted into food transport. “One of the hardest parts now is how to move cargo from its source to where people need it,” says Mr. Mejia-Argueta. “More truckers are needed, so truckers are being diverted into the food supply system from other sectors that are momentarily quiet.” Trucks that used to carry auto parts might now be hauling flour.

As a supply-chain scientist, Mr. Mejia-Argueta has looked at what could happen to severely disrupt food production and distribution. The main risks would come from panic purchasing and hoarding, workforce shortages due to illness, and a disaster-case economic crisis.

Evidence of every one of those worst-case scenarios is already present, but not to any extent deemed threatening.

“I would tell people, to be honest, that you don’t need to worry. The supply chain will be resilient and robust enough to manage this without any issue. We will find a way,” he says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

She was forced to marry a warlord. Now, she’s helping survivors heal.

Rebuilding your life after trauma takes community. But that's tough to find – especially if few people understand what you've experienced. This group helps survivors reconnect.

Eva
Erin Baines/Women's Advocacy Network
Victoria Nyanjura, Grace Acan, and Evelyn Amony (from left to right) look over Lake Victoria in Entebbe, Uganda. The women are leaders of the Women's Advocacy Network, which supports survivors of conflict in Uganda.

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Evelyn Amony was only a preteen, walking home from school, when she was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Joseph Kony’s rebel group waged war in Uganda for two decades and abducted 30,000 children along the way.

At first, she was treated as a house servant for Mr. Kony. But one day, he called her to his house alongside his two dozen wives, and announced Ms. Amony would marry him, too.

“I asked him, ‘How can I be your wife when up until this point you have called me your child?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘You have no choice.’”

Eight years later, she was finally freed, along with her children, only to find her family had disowned her. She wasn’t alone. Many of the women forced into marriage by the LRA have faced similar heartbreak, and poverty, as they try to rebuild their lives. And Ms. Amony and other survivors decided to do something about it.

Today, their organization, the Women’s Advocacy Network, helps reunite returnees with their families – often in-laws, if women’s parents won’t accept them. They help each other find job training, raise money, and seek comfort, as they share experiences few others can understand.

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4. She was forced to marry a warlord. Now, she’s helping survivors heal.

The crowd ululated and cheered as Santa Aber and her daughter stepped out of the dust-streaked car. Nearly all the residents of this small village in northern Uganda had come out to welcome the women to their new home.

Two decades ago, at the age of 14, Ms. Aber was abducted from a nearby village by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that waged a violent civil war in this part of Uganda from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s. She escaped in 2005, with a daughter she’d had with an LRA commander she was forced to marry.

But she couldn’t go home. Her family refused to take her back, as is true for many children abducted by the LRA. And so, for the next 15 years, she lived alone in a run-down hut, washing clothes for local families.

Then, last year, she heard about a group called the Women’s Advocacy Network (WAN), which helps reunite LRA abductees with their families. Her own family wouldn’t accept her back, she knew, but perhaps the family of her daughter’s father would. The group began quiet negotiations on her behalf, and two months later, she was here.

It was an unusual homecoming – to a place she had never before lived. But as she stepped into Atanga that day in February, Ms. Aber felt relief.

“I have a home now,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.

WAN founder Evelyn Amony, who had brokered the reunion, watched the scene with a biting mix of joy and anguish. This was the 54th time her organization had reunited an LRA abductee with her family, bringing an end to years of wandering and suffering.

And each of those 54 times, she wondered when her own turn would come.

John Okot
Evelyn Amony (in red) poses with community members in Atanga, a village in Uganda where she recently brokered a reunion between a woman abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in the 1990s and her in-laws. The LRA abducted thousands of children during two decades of conflict.

From child to wife

In 1994, when Ms. Amony was a preteen, she was kidnapped by LRA rebels while walking home from school near Gulu, northern Uganda’s main city.

By that time, the LRA had been fighting a brutal guerrilla war in northern Uganda for seven years. Its goal was to overthrow the country’s national government, which had subjected the country’s north to decades of neglect and abuse, and establish a theocracy.

But the LRA struggled to find recruits. So it simply began to kidnap them.

Children were an easy target. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the LRA abducted at least 30,000 children between 1987 and 2006. Boys became soldiers. Girls fought too, and many also became “wives” to the army’s commanders.

Ms. Amony was 14 and working as a house servant for the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, when he called her to his house alongside his two dozen wives.

From this day forward, he announced, Ms. Amony would be his wife, too.

“I asked him, ‘How can I be your wife when up until this point you have called me your child?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘You have no choice.’”

Eight years later, Ms. Amony and her three children were in an LRA camp in what is now South Sudan when the Ugandan military attacked. In the chaos, she grabbed for her children, but only found two sets of little hands.

“I watched my [other] child slip through my fingers,” says Ms. Amony. “I have searched for her ever since.”

The Ugandan military took her into custody for eight months. When she was released, she went immediately back to her home village, only to find her family had disowned her.

“They would often say, ‘Kony’s children are still alive but our children are all buried,’” she says. (Ms. Amony had also adopted two of Mr. Kony’s other children, whom she met while in Ugandan custody.)

Healing together

So she left for Gulu, where she enrolled in a government-sponsored tailoring course at a local Roman Catholic school. Soon after, in 2006, she was chosen to represent former abductees at a series of peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government.

The experience was a revelation: She was not alone – or powerless.

Ms. Amony and a group of women she’d met at the peace talks and in Gulu decided to form a small organization to help each other save money. They called it Rwot Lakica (God is Merciful).

As membership grew, and the women grew close, they began to speak to each other about the traumas they had endured at the hands of the LRA. For many, there was a deep relief in breaking the shameful silence around their experiences of abduction, rape, and captivity.

Soon, the group began helping survivors tell their stories more publicly – at community gatherings, on radio talk shows, and in a book they published about women’s experiences under the LRA.

Renaming itself the Women’s Advocacy Network, the organization also formed small groups in villages across the region, where women can talk about the challenges of coming home, from stigma to poverty to the pain of searching for lost loved ones. They’ve helped each other find economic security, too, with job training and livestock purchasing programs.

One family at a time

But their work, at times, has seemed endless.

The two-decade LRA insurgency had led to the deaths of 12,000 people in northern Uganda and uprooted 1.5 million people. By 2009, the LRA had been driven out of Uganda, and its hostages have slowly trickled back to their homes. But they continue to face rejection, particularly children fathered by LRA rebels and their mothers.

Ms. Aber’s father, for example, said he could not welcome her back into their home because “you had [a] child with the devil.”

In cases like this one, Ms. Amony – who first met Ms. Aber when they were both being held by the LRA – and her team act as detectives. They ask the abductee to tell them anything she can remember about her child’s father: family name, clan name, village, lineage, and family stories. Then they use their own network of informants – WAN’s more than 900 members across northern Uganda – to find the family.

It didn’t take long to establish that Ms. Aber’s child’s father came from a village called Atanga. From there, Ms. Amony brokered a meeting with local leaders, and eventually with the man’s family.

Yes, the family said, their son had been abducted too, and yes, he had died while serving as an LRA commander. They agreed that Ms. Aber and her daughter were their family too, and promised to take them in.

On the evening of the reunion, as locals continued to ululate and dance to a convulsive local beat called lakubukubu, Ms. Amony watched from afar. She was happy for them, but another thought pressed down on her, heavy and aching.

“My plan is to continue helping as many returnees as I can,” she says. “But I hope my daughter will one day return back home.”

On Film

Home theater: Spend quality time with the elegant Sidney Poitier

When looking for diverting films, one option is to seek out masters of their craft. Film critic Peter Rainer, a longtime champion of Sidney Poitier, notes that the Hollywood great brought dignity and grace to virtually all of his roles. 

Eva
Mirisch/United Artists/Album/Newscom
Sidney Poitier stars in "In the Heat of the Night" (1967).
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5. Home theater: Spend quality time with the elegant Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier is, along with Cary Grant, probably the most elegant of all Hollywood movie stars. He is also one of its greatest actors. He brought dignity and grace to virtually all of his roles.  

Because I was the writer and co-producer of a 1997 A&E Biography documentary about Poitier, I’d like to try something a bit different and begin this column with a few anecdotes about his life and career.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

It may come as a surprise to some that Poitier was born dirt poor in a small island in the Bahamas. He dropped out of school at 13, eventually making his way to New York City, where he was homeless for a time. He was initially rejected by the American Negro Theater because his West Indian accent was so thick no one could understand him.

His first Broadway appearance was a bit part in an all-black production of “Lysistrata.” On opening night he was so nervous he could barely get his lines out. Mortified, he vowed to give up acting and go back to dishwashing. The next day the newspaper reviews appeared and only he escaped censure from the critics. Believing his nervousness was intentional, they hailed the arrival of a new comic talent.

As a struggling young actor in an industry that rarely afforded black performers a chance to shine except as song-and-dance entertainers, Poitier consistently refused to accept demeaning roles. His remarkable debut performance playing a doctor in the racially themed “No Way Out” (1950) should have made him a star, but Hollywood at that time was not ready for that. Seventeen years later, in 1967, he appeared in three of that year’s top 10 grossing movies: “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, With Love,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

A few years after the A&E documentary aired, never having met him, I was asked to host a gala celebration for Poitier at the Motion Picture Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Talking with him on stage remains a highlight of my career. In 2011, not having had any interaction with him in the interim, I spotted Poitier at a Governors Awards dinner sponsored by the academy. He was with Oprah Winfrey, who was being honored that night. I wanted to approach him afterward and thank him again for that celebratory evening but was afraid he might not remember me. I didn’t want to tarnish what had been so important a moment for me. But I went ahead anyway and introduced myself. He looked over at me and gave me a big broad smile and said: “I remember it fondly,” stretching that last word into three mellifluous syllables.

Of the many Poitier films I would single out, including “The Defiant Ones” (1958) and the less well-known “Edge of the City” (1957) and “Paris Blues” (1961), the following are three of the strongest.

“In the Heat of the Night”  

“In the Heat of the Night,” the 1967 Oscar winner for best picture, is probably Poitier’s most honored, and best, movie. He plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective who becomes involved in a small town Mississippi murder investigation, facing off against the incessantly gum-chewing local police chief played by Rod Steiger. Years after seeing it, I can’t remember who finally committed the murder. But the real show here is the peerlessly entertaining Poitier-Steiger byplay. There’s also a groundbreaking-for-its-time moment when Tibbs, slapped in the face by a wealthy white racist, slaps back. (Unrated)

“A Raisin in the Sun”  

“A Raisin in the Sun,” a 1961 adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play about a struggling black family in Chicago, has some of Poitier’s strongest work. Acting doesn’t get any better than the scene in which he pleads with his mother (played by the formidable Claudia McNeil) for a better life. (Unrated)

“Lilies of the Field” 

Poitier won the best actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field” (1963), the first black performer to do so. He plays Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman who is roped into building a chapel in rural Arizona for a group of Roman Catholic nuns who have emigrated from Germany. Yes, it’s hokey as all get out. But the hokum is part of its appeal, and Poitier is at his most irresistibly engaging. Amen. (Unrated)

“In the Heat of the Night” and “A Raisin in the Sun” are available for rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes. “Lilies of the Field” is available on iTunes. 

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A beacon for ending lockdowns

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Many nations looking for the best way to end a coronavirus shutdown watched with awe Wednesday as millions of South Koreans ventured outside and voted. The casting of ballots was the world’s first national-level election since the virus outbreak was declared a global pandemic. The election was a model of how to safely run the voting process. Korean voters felt safe enough that more than two-thirds turned out, the highest rate in 28 years.

Yet on a grander scale, the election demonstrated that an ideal exit strategy from the crisis does exist – if countries are open and smart about discovering it.

Leaders everywhere are searching for the right path to end lockdowns, social distancing, school closures, and similar impositions on daily life. A few countries, such as Germany and Denmark, are skillfully if gingerly reopening their societies. They are not hoping for the best. They are relying on the best in society – from scientists to civil servants – to build up trust among the public. The trust, at least in South Korea, is that an exit plan is both possible and near.

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A beacon for ending lockdowns

Many nations looking for the best way to end a coronavirus shutdown watched with awe Wednesday as millions of South Koreans ventured outside and voted. The casting of ballots was the world’s first national-level election since the virus outbreak was declared a global pandemic.

The election was a model of how to safely run the voting process – even those in mandatory quarantine were given special protection at the 14,000 voting stations. Korean voters felt safe enough that more than two-thirds turned out, the highest rate in 28 years.

Yet on a grander scale, the election demonstrated that an ideal exit strategy from the crisis does exist – if countries are open and smart about discovering it.

Leaders everywhere are searching for the right path to end lockdowns, social distancing, school closures, and similar impositions on daily life. “These are unprecedented times, and so we need to think on a scale that would previously be considered unimaginable,” Natalie Dean, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, told The New York Times.

South Korea was so rigorous in safeguarding the election that its president, Moon Jae-in, said the country “will be able to give hope to the world that we can resume a normal life.” Several world leaders in fact did praise the country for the way it conducted the vote.

Once home to the world’s second-largest outbreak of COVID-19, South Korea is also a model for a quick and effective reduction of the fatality rate. Just as effective was the government’s radical transparency about the crisis and the measures needed to end it. That led to a high rate of voluntary compliance.

Mr. Moon and his ruling Democratic Party were rewarded at the polls for their success. The DP and its sister party won three-fifths of the seats in the National Assembly. The stunning majority gives Mr. Moon more power to now deal with an economic slowdown.

A few other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, are skillfully if gingerly reopening their societies. They are not hoping for the best. They are relying on the best in society – from scientists to civil servants – to build up trust among the public. The trust, at least in South Korea, is that an exit plan is both possible and near.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Finding sanctuary when buildings are closed

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In many parts of the world, churches (and other public spaces) are closed in compliance with governmental regulations. But wherever we are and whomever we are (or aren’t) with, each of us can experience the sanctuary of divine joy, comfort, and healing.

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1. Finding sanctuary when buildings are closed

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Like so many churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques, my local Church of Christ, Scientist, has suspended in-person activities to comply with our governor’s stay-at-home order. As our congregation prepared to make this temporary sacrifice of our twice-weekly gatherings, my thought turned to solitary experiences of some of the Bible characters – Daniel’s confinement in the lions’ den and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, to name just two.

I think of them as “sanctuary” experiences because these individuals were neither idle nor frustrated by these very testing circumstances, but actively gaining a more solid understanding of the strength and wisdom of the one God. They emerged unscathed, fully prepared for the tasks set before them.

The founder of the Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, describes a solitary but enriching sanctuary experience of her own that lasted for three years. After discovering Christian Science, she “searched the Scriptures and read little else, kept aloof from society, and devoted time and energies to discovering a positive rule. The search was sweet, calm, and buoyant with hope, not selfish nor depressing” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 109). And she was studying, writing, and communing with God while having to move a number of times, staying with friends and acquaintances, or in boarding houses!

So her sanctuary was a spiritual consciousness, a place of peace, reflection, and safety that cannot be overturned, which Jesus urged us to enter into when he described the need to go into our closet when praying to God. Science and Health explains, “The closet typifies the sanctuary of Spirit, the door of which shuts out sinful sense but lets in Truth, Life, and Love” (p. 15).

This willingness to prayerfully go beyond the physical senses and discern the spiritual fact of God’s ever-presence quiets the turmoil of unsettled thinking. It helps us feel and experience safety in God, wherever we may be.

King David conveyed poetically his desire to feel safe wherever he was. Referring to one of his psalms (see Psalms 91:1), Mrs. Eddy wrote, “The ‘secret place,’ whereof David sang, is unquestionably man’s spiritual state in God’s own image and likeness, even the inner sanctuary of divine Science …” (“The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 244).

Whether accessible in person or online, the Christian Science Church provides multiple resources for learning more about everyone’s true nature as God’s safe, peaceful, spiritual offspring – and these resources open the door to healing. While worship services are a twice-weekly resource of inspiration, a cool drink of life-lifting refreshment, we can take part, whatever physical form these services take.

For instance, when I was a kindergartener and on through elementary school, my dad worked for a large company that transferred him frequently to open new territories for its products. Many of the locales were small and remote, with few houses for short-term rental, and what was available was usually modest, to say the least.

Yet my parents, devout Christian Scientists, made every move a wonderful adventure for our family, and each house quickly became a home. If there was no church within driving distance, our living room became a Christian Science church on Sundays and Wednesdays. Sunday School came first, then a service – complete with a cappella hymns and bowed heads for prayer. Neighbors would sometimes accept the invitation to join us, and my parents’ joyful sense of a church home led to the formation of three Christian Science Societies in tiny towns.

To me all of this goes to show that isolation can never deprive us of the fulfillment of church participation and its comforting, healing impact. Wherever we may be, whatever our background, we can let inspiration from the Bible and the writings of Eddy light our consciousness, guide us in our careers, impel harmony in our homes. Even in the current “wilderness” circumstances we can have a fruitful experience: focused study of the Word of God, deeper communion with the Divine, exploring a wealth of resources provided at christianscience.com and JSH-Online.com, even taking the opportunity to share our inspiration with others through testimonies and articles.

And when stay-at-home orders are lifted and public gatherings resume, what we’ve learned from our worship at home can strengthen our church work moving forward.

The foundation of home, sanctuary, church, is one and the same: God, who is divine Spirit and Love. As Jesus once said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).

What more could we truly desire than the peace and joy that come when we seek home and temple – and find sanctuary – in the Almighty God and His Christ, Truth?

Viewfinder

When the bluebells are ringing

Virginia Mayo/AP
Bluebells bloom in the Hallerbos forest in Halle, Belgium, April 16, 2020. Bluebells are particularly associated with ancient woodland where they can dominate the forest floor to produce carpets of violet-blue flowers.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We’ll have an audio treat exploring how our perception of time has shifted during the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Why do some days feel like weeks, and some weeks feel like days?

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