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What do puns have to do with the environment? Lots, if you are rising fifth grader Merwan Robinson, who spent his summer writing, illustrating, and publishing – with help from his parents – the two-book series “Martha’s Vineyard Puns to Bring a Smile.”
His primary goal is to “start a PUN-demic where healing smiles are spread around the planet.”
But many of the illustrations and puns suggest a second goal, saving the planet. For example: “Our oceans deserve better protection. They are so kind and always wave.”
The information is “a little bit scary and maybe a bit creepy,” he warns, before explaining how the shark “can extend a jaw and snap the prey.”
Why does this matter? In a word, hope.
Though he’s barely 10, Merwan is already pitching in to protect the environment. After completing the books, he and his father, Walter Robinson, met with Collin Ward, assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to introduce the idea of a puppet show using Merwan’s sea creatures to educate children about the ocean.
His message isn’t just for kids, though. In fact, Merwan and his dad are hoping that, through a friend, the books reach former President Barack Obama, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday on Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island.
Speaking to everyone from preschoolers to presidents, on behalf of “Pure Seas the Sea Horse,” one of his sculptures, Merwan urges, “‘Sea’ if you might please kindly help ‘Pure Seas’ during this critical ‘sea’-son of planet earth’s history to ‘sea’-lect the best conservation choices for our oceans so they continue to happily wave to us in the future!”
Key levees held as Hurricane Ida slammed New Orleans, but now major humanitarian needs have to be met. Although rattled, residents are grateful for progress since Katrina – and are helping one another amid power outages.
Vast stretches of Louisiana lacked electric power after one of the strongest hurricanes in the nation’s recorded history made landfall Sunday, accompanied by major rains as well as winds of 150 mph.
The storm’s surge was so powerful that it reversed the flow of the Mississippi River, but it was not strong enough to break the will of some New Orleans residents. Notably, people in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, which was swamped by a levee failure following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, were grateful that now-reinforced levees held this time.
The morning after Ida cleared New Orleans, Lower Ninth residents had already begun to band together by picking up debris from their neighbors’ yards. By noon, with news that the electricity in their homes may remain off for days or weeks, residential blocks began planning for barbecues so as not to waste frozen foods.
Sunday evening was harrowing even for those accustomed to big storms. “I usually sleep through hurricanes but I got really nervous around 4 o’clock,” says resident Caleb Law.
Now the neighborhood, the state, and federal emergency responders are mobilizing for the next important stage: rescue and relief efforts that could last for weeks.
Vast stretches of Louisiana lacked electric power after one of the strongest hurricanes in the nation’s recorded history made landfall Sunday accompanied by major rains as well as winds of 150 mph.
The storm’s surge was so powerful that it reversed the flow of the Mississippi River, but it was not strong enough to break the will of some New Orleans residents.
In particular, residents of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, which captured national attention as it was swamped by a levee failure following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, were grateful that now-reinforced levees held firm.
The morning after Hurricane Ida swept northward beyond New Orleans, Lower Ninth residents had already begun to band together by picking up debris from their neighbors’ yards. By noon, with news that the electricity in their homes may remain off for days or weeks, residential blocks began planning for barbecues so as not to waste frozen foods.
Many Lower Ninth residents with the resources to do so opted to evacuate in the days prior to Ida’s landfall. They cited the traumatic experience of surviving Katrina as their reason for leaving before Ida.
Among those who stayed was Caleb Law. He says he was confident in his decision until mid-afternoon Sunday rolled around and the storm began to pick up strength. It was around that time he heard the garage attached to the right side of his home begin to peel away under the wind’s strength. It tumbled over his roof until it pierced the side of his neighbor’s home, which stopped the wreckage in its tracks.
“Folks around here are used to this stuff,” Mr. Law says. “I usually sleep through hurricanes, but I got really nervous around 4 o’clock.”
In the daylight on Monday, with the howling winds over, New Orleans and the wider region were only beginning what could be a long recovery. State and federal emergency responders began mobilizing rescue and relief efforts that could last for weeks.
“For the most part, all of our levees performed extremely well – especially the federal levees – but at the end of the day, the storm surge, the rain, the wind all had devastating impacts,” said Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards on Monday. “We have tremendous damage to homes and to businesses.”
On Monday more than 1 million Louisiana homes and businesses were without electricity.
President Joe Biden issued emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of the storm to pave the way for relief, and declared a major disaster for Louisiana on Sunday. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has mobilized 3,600 people toward the region to assist in recovery efforts, plus 3.4 million meals and supplies of bottled water for the storm-devastated area.
For many in New Orleans, like Ida Perry and her family, relief can’t come too soon.
During the storm, she felt safe in a French Quarter hotel that the city put some vulnerable residents in for the night – until she didn’t. Ms. Perry remembers watching a roof fly off a nearby building in the French quarter. She could see it from their hotel room window.
“I was so scared,” Ms. Perry says.
Like the rest of the city, the hotel where her family was lost power. Residents were asked to leave the following morning. Many, like Ms. Perry, returned home to find their lives in a state of chaos.
“Everybody had to get out. The only thing you can do is go back home to fend for ourselves,” Ms. Perry says. “Some people ain’t have no house to go back to – their roof is gone.”
Across the city, the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans reported outages at sewage pump stations. The board’s officials told residents that the outages put residents at risk of having sewage back up into their homes.
Ms. Perry’s home, which sits at ground level and which took on several inches of water during the storm, was among those to experience a sewage backup.
Darnel Foy, who shares the residence with Ms. Perry, says, “We’ve been trying to get in touch with our landlord, but he isn’t answering the phone. This is what we have to go through.”
Ms. Perry is upset, but she knows her neighbors will be there for her. Many were already gathered around, helping clean up the mess or preparing to barbecue for the block.
But she wonders when longer-term help will arrive, saying “we are stranded.”
“We’ll get you what you need if we can,” President Biden said Monday. “The people of Louisiana and Mississippi are resilient. But it’s in moments like these where we can certainly see the power of government to respond to the needs of the people, if government’s prepared and if they respond.”
By the day’s end the storm’s damage, including at least some deaths, was still in the early stages of being assessed. Ida roared through a region chock-full of energy industry assets like oil refineries and offshore drilling platforms. Much of that infrastructure was shut down in preparation for the storm – but the disruptions were not expected to have immediate effects on supplies of gasoline and other fuels nationwide.
As the rains of Ida moved north and eastward Monday, many residents echoed Ms. Perry’s calls for help.
Suzette Francis is focused on reconnecting with family members in the area – and on obtaining food and water, especially. But after the experience the night before, she is thankful to see the light of the day today.
“I’m just glad I’m alive,” she says.
Brazil's calamitous handling of COVID-19 has hurt President Jair Bolsonaro's prospect of being reelected. His defiant response and courtship of the military has raised fears of democratic backsliding.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro looked on approvingly earlier this month as armored vehicles snaked through the nation’s capital. But his military parade was controversial for its timing on the eve of a vote in Congress about election security in 2022 and for the signal it sends about Mr. Bolsonaro’s increasingly close ties to Brazil’s armed forces.
Having weathered the first year of a pandemic that Brazil is widely seen as mismanaging, Mr. Bolsonaro has seen his popularity fall to new lows this summer. As angry Brazilians take to the streets – at times calling for impeachment – he’s turned to sowing doubt about the trustworthiness of the 2022 presidential vote, echoing the strategy of former President Donald Trump in whipping up a disgruntled base.
These moves are calling into question the stability and independence of Brazil’s democratic institutions. They also represent a risky political calculation that could alienate moderates whose votes elevated Mr. Bolsonaro, a fringe far-right congressman, to the presidency in 2018. “Bolsonaro is weaker than he’s ever been – and he is throwing all his cards on the table,” says Marjorie Marona, a political science professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais.
A line of military tanks rolled through the heart of Brazil’s capital on a recent morning, enveloped by a cloud of black exhaust smoke. From the marble steps of the presidential palace, President Jair Bolsonaro looked on approvingly.
The Aug. 10 military parade, unprecedented since Brazil’s 1985 return to democracy, came just hours before lawmakers voted on the far-right president’s proposal to bring back paper ballots, a proposal that critics say is aimed at discrediting Brazil’s electronic voting machines. Mr. Bolsonaro is seeking a second term in next year’s presidential election.
The parade, which drew criticism domestically and abroad, was seen as a not-so-subtle attempt at intimidating lawmakers. In that regard, it failed: Congress rejected the proposal. But it forms part of a pattern that has raised questions over Brazil’s democratic health.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage Brazil and its stricken economy, Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity has tumbled to new lows in recent months. Angry Brazilians have taken to the streets to call for his impeachment. The president, a former army captain, has responded by attacking other branches of government, sowing doubts over election security, and flaunting his increasingly cozy relationship with the armed forces.
“Bolsonaro is weaker than he’s ever been – and he is throwing all his cards on the table,” says Marjorie Marona, a political scientist at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “It’s a show of strength,” but it’s coming from a place of “desperation,” she says.
COVID-19 has killed 578,000 people in Brazil, a toll second only to the United States. Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly brushed off the severity of the health crisis, rejecting sanitary measures like face masks, social distancing, and lockdowns. His government also slashed emergency aid this year to millions of workers, an unpopular move.
In televised hearings, a parliamentary inquiry has dissected Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, including a stream of corruption allegations that have tarnished his image as an anti-graft crusader. This includes an alleged kickback scheme in which his government sought to buy millions of COVID-19 vaccines at sharply inflated prices.
Only 23% of Brazilians believe Mr. Bolsonaro is doing a good or great job, according to an August poll by XP/Ipespe.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s courtship of Brazil’s military has fueled worries that he’s trying to rile up his core supporters and lay the groundwork for a coup if he loses next year’s election. While recent challenges to election results in the United States and Peru didn’t succeed, some experts say Brazil’s young democracy is more vulnerable.
“The risk here is greater,” says Camila Rocha, a political scientist who has studied right-wing voters and Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters. “Sizable segments of the Armed Forces support Bolsonaro.”
Walter Souza Braga Netto, an army general and Brazil’s minister of defense, has denied that this month’s parade was intended to intimidate lawmakers. “The president considered it an homage. Because he is a president who honors the Armed Forces,” he said.
Mr. Bolsonaro has said he won’t accept the election results if he sees the vote as fraudulent. He recently threatened to cancel the elections altogether if the voting system is not fixed, despite no evidence of fraud in past elections. “Next year’s elections have to be clean,” he declared last month. “Either we’ll have clean elections, or we won’t have elections.”
Mr. Bolsonaro has attacked Brazil’s Supreme Court, which is investigating the president’s role in spreading false information about the electoral process. He filed a lawsuit against the Supreme Court and even sought to impeach one of its judges, though the Senate shot down his requests last week.
The central question is whether the military will stand by Mr. Bolsonaro. Earlier this year, the chiefs of Brazil’s army, navy, and air force jointly resigned, allegedly in protest of Mr. Bolsonaro’s attempts to exert undue control over them. Their replacements have closer ties to the president.
Mr. Bolsonaro has appointed thousands of former and current military officers to top government posts. At least 6,100 staff members in his administration have a military background, more than double the number under his conservative predecessor, Michel Temer.
“We already know that Bolsonaro doesn’t have limits,” says João Roberto Martins Filho, a political science professor at the Federal University of São Carlos and author of several books on Brazil’s military dictatorship. “What we still don’t know is how far the armed forces will go.”
There’s cautious optimism among academics that the military will remain loyal to the country’s democratic institutions and that these bodies can remain independent and strong enough to resist any electoral foul play. But Dr. Martins Filho warns that the military could resist a return to the political margins. “They will want to stay in power,” he says.
And public faith in institutions has been shaken by years of corruption scandals, says Dr. Marona. This mistrust, which also applies to the electoral process, could play into the hands of a strongman like Mr. Bolsonaro.
The situation “has only amplified this sense of not being represented, that democratic institutions don’t function well, that all politicians are corrupt,” she says.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s assaults on democratic institutions are not new. During his 26 years in Congress, he often lamented the limits of democracy, waxed nostalgic about military dictatorship, and fantasized about shutting down Congress, calling it a system that “doesn’t work.”
“This discourse has always been Bolsonaro’s signature, and it was crucial to his election,” says Dr. Martins Filho. “He presents himself as an outsider by questioning institutions.”
Mr. Bolsonaro won over moderate voters in 2018 by promising to kick-start the economy. And his pledges to get tough on crime resonated in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime. An outsider status gave him a leg up, too: Brazilians were disillusioned after more than a decade of leftist Workers’ Party (PT) leadership.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s reliance on moves like the military parade may be alienating this more moderate demographic. “Bolsonaro has this core base that’s really loyal,” says Dr. Rocha. But trying to radicalize his base with claims of electoral meddling by opponents is “a big gamble” if it turns off moderates.
Vinícius Pedrada Coutinho says he voted for the president in the 2018 election runoff because he was an appealing alternative to the PT. He was drawn to Mr. Bolsonaro’s vows to put the economy back on track, but last month he lost his job as a supervisor at an appliance company.
“We were looking for a political renewal,” says Mr. Coutinho. “We were hoping for a new economic era. But he didn’t deliver on any of his promises.”
Gean Perreira Santos, a security guard in Brasilia, the capital, says his concerns go further. “He seemed like an authentic guy who spoke his mind,” he says of casting his ballot for Mr. Bolsonaro. Now, “It seems like what he really wanted all along was” to stay in power.
With former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva – a divisive but still wildly popular figure – now free to run in next year’s elections, Mr. Bolsonaro’s position is even more fragile.
Just 24% of Brazilians say they would vote for Mr. Bolsonaro in the first round of elections next year, according to the XP/Ipespe poll. Some 40% say they would cast a ballot for Mr. da Silva. Others say they don’t like either choice.
If there is no strong third option, Mr. Coutinho says he will spoil his vote. “I don’t want to be responsible for Bolsonaro winning another term, I can’t have that on my conscience. But I also don’t believe in voting for the lesser of two evils.”
Legal reforms can provide protection to domestic workers, but changing social attitudes is much harder, as Pakistan’s experience has shown.
When Pakistan’s largest province passed legislation in 2019 that provided legal rights and social security to domestic workers, reformers cheered. But two years on, relatively few domestic workers have registered for social security and most continue to work without contracts.
Most domestic workers are women, including some underage workers. Activists say it can be difficult to convince them of the benefits of registering with the government, in part because they often work for multiple households and don’t want a single contract.
But the biggest problem is employers who resist the idea that their domestic staff are workers with rights and protections. Elaine Alam, secretary-general of FACES Pakistan, a nonprofit rights group, says Pakistan’s economic elites need to change their attitudes. This includes lawmakers who were reluctant to legislate for the rights of women who toil around the clock in well-off households.
“They employ domestic workers themselves and didn’t want to be held accountable for how much they pay their workers or what conditions they keep them in,” she says.
Last month, when Samina Farooq, a domestic worker, learned that a fellow female worker in Lahore had been beaten by her employer for spilling milk on the floor, she went to see her. Her message: You should quit now.
“Bibis [female employers] beat us for dropping milk on the floor or deduct a portion of our salary if we mistakenly burn a piece of cloth when ironing. Are we not humans? Can’t we make mistakes?” says Ms. Farooq. After the employer acknowledged that she had treated her maid unfairly, the maid agreed to stay on.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that Pakistan has more than 8.5 million domestic workers, mostly women and children. Some suffer appalling abuse at the hands of their employers. Last year an 8-year-old girl was beaten to death by her employers in Rawalpindi for letting their parrots escape.
Activists have long complained that in addition to high-profile abuses, domestic workers are routinely exploited behind closed doors, without any of the protections and benefits provided to formal workers.
So, when the province of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous, passed a law in 2019 that barred child labor in homes and extended labor law and social security to all domestic staff, it was hailed as a landmark reform. But the Domestic Workers Act, a first for Pakistan, hasn’t lived up to its promise because of resistance from employers, lax government oversight, and, perhaps surprisingly, lukewarm support from domestic workers themselves.
As of early 2020, the provincial government had only registered 7,000 domestic workers, far behind their target of 50,000. Most workers are still hired informally with no limits put on their hours.
Elaine Alam, secretary general of FACES Pakistan, a nonprofit rights group, says this slow progress on registering domestic staff shows that laws alone cannot improve the conditions of these workers; the social attitudes of Pakistan’s economic elites toward them also need to change. This includes lawmakers who resisted the reforms for years as not being in their own interest, she says.
“They employ domestic workers themselves and didn’t want to be held accountable for how much they pay their workers or what conditions they keep them in,” she says.
Activists say female workers are often hired for one task and then ordered to do many more, while earning less than male cooks and cleaners. “The patriarchal nature of our society exploits and benefits from these workers being females,” says Ume Laila Azhar, who directs HomeNet Pakistan, an advocacy organization for domestic and home-based workers.
Rafiqa Shaqoor works as a domestic worker in Lahore and lives in a small, dilapidated, one-room house just outside an upscale residential community where she cleans two houses. She has six children, three of whom are also domestic workers – all underage – while the other three, aged 5, 6, and 11, are considered too young to work.
When approached for an interview, Ms. Shaqoor refuses shyly, asking her husband, Shaqoor Ahmad, to talk.
“We want our children to go to school, but I also can’t afford for them to not work. How are we going to survive this inflation if we all don’t work?” says Mr. Shaqoor, who used to work as a rickshaw driver before his rickshaw got stolen.
While child labor is illegal here, it remains common. Across Pakistan, around 264,000 children are employed as domestic workers, according to ILO estimates.
Mr. and Ms. Shaqoor left their village and moved to Lahore three years ago in search of economic opportunities and hoped to enroll their children in school. But their dreams have not been realized.
Their oldest daughter, 15, works as a live-in housemaid, on call around the clock. She only gets a day or two off a month – which is when she visits her parents – and earns 9,000 rupees ($55) per month, less than half of Punjab’s minimum wage.
Mr. Shaqoor recognizes that his daughters are employed illegally and might be facing exploitation at work, but he says the family needs the money that they earn as maids.
“I will make them leave work in a few years when it’s time to marry them off,” he says.
Ms. Farooq has been working as a maid in Lahore for more than a decade, working without a contract and carrying out chores like cleaning or washing dishes. After seeing how workers like her are treated, she joined the Domestic Workers Union in 2015 to fight for their rights. She argues that the best way to combat workplace violations is to boycott abusive employers.
“When these households don’t find any workers, then they will realize our value,” she says.
The union has trained Ms. Farooq on how to negotiate a fair salary, what her rights are under provincial laws, and how to respond to mistreatment.
In addition to being a domestic worker, Ms. Farooq now also works to educate her peers about their legal rights and explain why they should register with the government’s social security system so they can receive health benefits and a pension.
She also recommends that all domestic workers informally fix remuneration rates for their local neighborhood and not work for anything below that.
“What I have learned is that what I am getting paid is the remuneration for my hard work, and not a favor that my employers are doing,” she says. “Our wages are already pretty low, so even if they give me food or tip me on special occasions, I am not indebted to them.”
Ms. Azhar, from HomeNet Pakistan, believes that attitudes toward domestic workers will not improve unless employers change their minds, which is a hard sell in Pakistan since most well-off households see maids as their social inferiors. She objects strongly to how employers justify long hours for live-in workers by arguing that they get free food and accommodation.
Still, she remains hopeful that the Domestic Workers Act may lead to more discussion of worker rights among employers.
However, activists say that many workers don’t wish to become part of the formal workforce – the objective of the 2019 law – because they aren’t sure they want to be under contract to one household. In addition, few fully grasp what benefits they would get as a result of contractual employment.
“There is also reluctance from the side of domestic housekeepers for they fear that instead of being able to work at multiple houses and make extra money, they might be restricted to one house with certain hours. They don’t understand how this bill will apply to them, so they fear the unknown,” says Ms. Alam, of FACES Pakistan.
Ms. Farooq says that having formal contracts is not practical until the government strictly enforces the minimum wage. For now, she wants to work on raising awareness of exploitation among domestic workers, many of whom don’t realize the extent of abuse in the profession.
“These rich households spend 20,000 rupees on one dress they wear, but when the same amount is mentioned as minimum wage for us, the bibis grab their heads crying that it’s not realistic. They can afford to pay us more, they just don’t want to,” she says.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
As this veteran learned – and is proving – the journey home from war isn’t a straight line. But you can reach the destination: healing.
There is no neat arc from war to peace – for our nation or for me. I began to learn this for myself after returning from a two-year tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2008.
More recently, watching America’s emergency evacuation from Afghanistan, I recalled a valuable lesson that Vietnam veterans had taught me. A war’s outcome can be horrific, they said. But you can heal.
The “war on terror” cast a spotlight on what’s termed post-traumatic stress disorder. Less well known is post-traumatic growth, in which someone who grapples with a horrifying event progresses past it, finds peace, and makes meaning of their experience.
I owe much of my post-traumatic growth to periods of isolation as well as connection. Josh Mantz, my good friend and fellow vet, reminds me that nondisclosure can be healthy, even necessary, and that some things can only be shared in prayer, meditation, and contemplation.
Vietnam veterans reunited with the Vietnamese long after that war ended, modeling a way to heal. Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans began reparations with those countries by evacuating and receiving their refugees in the United States.
I look forward to extending humanity to Afghans 20 years after 9/11.
I invite you to join me.
I’ll return to the Air Force Academy next month for a reunion. I’ll laugh with friends, retrace steps on campus, get quiet at the cemetery. I’ll experience it from a distance of 25 years since I began there.
For four years, the academy did its best to prepare us for some future conflict. What it did not and could not do was prepare us for an endless return journey home from 9/11’s “forever wars.” My path home will now include a second deployment overseas to assist the Afghan people. I’ll be volunteering at a U.S. government agency to process Afghan refugees.
There is no neat arc from war to peace – for our nation or for me. There’s no surefire guide to reintegration. Dr. Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West Point, prepares cadets through works of literature. They illustrate, as she states in her book “No Man’s Land,” “the final irony of the warrior’s repeated betrayal by the homecoming that is supposed to bring him peace but instead launches him into a second no man’s land.”
Vietnam veterans know this well. I began to learn it myself after returning from Afghanistan, where I’d been a counter-IED (roadside bomb) officer from 2007 to 2008. I lost, saved, and took lives in ways that only ground combat can precipitate. I required intensive treatment when I got back, logging countless hours of group therapy and peer support with other veterans.
Watching America’s emergency evacuation from Afghanistan, I recalled a valuable lesson that Vietnam veterans had taught me. A war’s outcome can be horrific, they said. It can cause ongoing harm, and the climate of the nation may cause you to feel separated from society. But you can heal. Returning to your humanity can heal the dehumanizing effects of combat.
In “Taking Chance,” a Marine officer accompanies the body of a young soldier killed in Iraq. In one scene, airplane passengers are glued to their windows as the escort officer salutes the casket coming down off the plane. I, too, had escorted the casket of my best friend, Alan “Cap” Hook, from Dover Air Force Base to his family in California in 1998. When I saluted Alan’s casket, I hadn’t felt so removed from civilian society since my commissioning two years prior. Earlier on that trip, Alan’s brother and I had to ask an airline manager to remove the luggage placed atop Alan’s coffin as it was pulled out to the plane.
Back then, America was somewhere between confronting Vietnam veterans at the airport and the heroes’ welcome for “war on terror” warriors. Between 2008 and 2012, I shrank my social circle, excluding even fellow veterans. I wanted little to do with others. If they knew the origin of my moral injuries from combat, I felt they’d want little to do with me.
Combat had imprinted me with despicable and beautiful truths about humanity. Withholding that knowledge from others was, as I saw it, my part of an implied social contract. But that withholding, and my new “veteran” label, grew toxic.
Unsure what was expected of me and missing the person I’d been in combat, I kept my distance. I became an island. I was lonely, vulnerable, and physically sick more often than I’d ever been.
Society seemed to have two labels for veterans: “heroes” or “broken.” We were on a pedestal or at arm’s length. Either way, we were distant. I was OK being separate. Separation helped me recover my physical health and mental wholeness.
The war on terror cast a spotlight on what’s termed post-traumatic stress disorder, in which someone has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Those wars on terror have also spurred conversations about moral injury, moral trauma. Even less well known is post-traumatic growth, in which someone who grapples with a horrifying event progresses past it, finds peace, and makes meaning of their experience.
Thanks to Josh Mantz, my good friend and fellow vet, I understand that I owe much of my post-traumatic growth to periods of isolation as well as connection. Josh reminds me that nondisclosure can be healthy, even necessary, and that some things can only be shared in prayer, meditation, and contemplation. This is where one can seek self-discovery, atonement, and the inspiration to move forward. What’s missing, still, are some of the ancient ceremonies that provided a measure of solace and connectedness for those emerging from the cauldron of war.
In the absence of such ceremonies, however, is the summons to respond to the fallout from Afghanistan. Vietnam veterans reunited with the Vietnamese long after that war ended, modeling a way to heal. Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans began reparations with those countries by evacuating and receiving their refugees in the United States.
I will still be coming home at my 25th academy reunion. I am grateful for, and looking forward to, the opportunity to extend humanity to Afghans 20 years after 9/11.
I invite you to join me.
Labels can make things easier to understand – and also oversimplify them. In her memoir, Shugri Said Salh strives to paint a fuller picture of growing up in Somalia, documenting the good alongside the bad.
Somali nomad. A poet’s granddaughter. Refugee. Soccer mom.
Shugri Said Salh has taken on a lot of identities. And it would be easy to boil her life down to its most shocking events, the tragedies and violence that led her to flee Somalia.
“Yes, I was a refugee,” she says. “But I also had a whole other life. I am not only that. I am more than that. I am a big story.”
Ms. Salh’s memoir, “The Last Nomad: Coming of Age in the Somali Desert,” is all about big stories, from the tales her grandmother told around the fire each night to Ms. Salh’s experience with female genital mutilation. She doesn’t shy away from her hardships, including her eventual displacement as a refugee, but she doesn’t let them dominate the book, either. Her mission wasn’t to write about tragedy, but rather about her life, and all its complexities and contradictions.
“I want to say to readers, don’t paint [Somalis] with a single brush,” she says. “We are not only victims. Our culture is not only barbaric, and not only noble. I went through that, but I’m also a soccer mom, a Californian who’s a bit of a hippie. There is no single story about my life.”
The Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ famously wrote that “in Africa, when an old man dies, a library burns down.” Shugri Said Salh found herself haunted by those words. She had grown up in a nomadic community in Somalia, but she was raising her three children in California on an all-American diet of soccer practices, piano lessons, and playdates. She loved the life she had given them, but she also didn’t want them to lose track of where they had come from.
“Somalia is a nation of poets, and of people with deep resilience,” she says. Her grandmother, her ayeeyo, had raised her on fireside stories, and she wanted to be part of that tradition too.
The result is a memoir called “The Last Nomad: Coming of Age in the Somali Desert.” The book’s story sprawls across three decades and two continents, from the Somali desert where Ms. Salh herded camels with her ayeeyo to her life as a refugee in Kenya and finally her resettlement in Canada. But though Ms. Salh came to North America fleeing violence, she says she resisted writing a book that centered around running away.
“Why would I want to just tell you all the sad things?” she says. “Yes, I was a refugee. But I also had a whole other life. I am not only that. I am more than that. I am a big story.”
Ms. Salh spoke with the Monitor about her childhood, and about the need for stories that complicate the way we see countries like hers.
Why do you think it’s important for people in the West to understand the way you grew up?
I am an infusion nurse. I worked endless hours during COVID, and spent a lot of time talking to my patients. And it made me realize, we are more connected than we think. I have seen that by sharing my story, by hearing my story, people have more compassion for my background, and don’t just write me off as a terrorist or a pirate. I liked to say to my patients, I didn’t read Jeffrey Dahmer’s story and said wow that’s what Americans are. Like everybody, we have the good and the bad. And I think the book helps to show that.
Also, I love to read, and I love when books transform me, when they take me out of my own life and teach me something. So perhaps if you are like me, if you are a curious person always in pursuit of something beautiful and enchanting and different from what you know, perhaps we can sit and gather by the fire and talk.
Somalia has a deep history of storytelling. It’s often called a country of poets. Can you talk a little bit about the role that stories played in your life growing up?
I came from a woman who instilled in me a deep reverence for my culture. She was this regal woman. Six feet tall. My ayeeyo was a poet, a warrior, and an activist. And despite being constantly in pursuit of green land and water, despite working every day just to survive, she and my other elders sat us down each night to tell us stories.
I remember this beauty of it. Sitting by the fire in a black night. The fire is crackling. The sky is black and covered in stars. You hear hyenas in the distance, but you aren’t afraid because you are with people who know how to live on the land and with the land. And so I could sit without fear and just listen and take in all these beautiful stories.
In your book, women live very complicated lives. They’re often both subjugated and strong, navigating expectations and stereotypes while finding ways to make space for themselves. What kind of portrait were you trying to give of Somali women in this book?
I often tell people Somali women are a unique kind of woman. We are Muslim women. We are nomads. We are city women. We are many things. And above all, we don’t put up with [anything].
I think often of my nomadic grandmother and how in her own ways, she was an activist. She took on roles that were not usually done by women, like herding and taming camels. And she was a poet who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind about the men in her community in the poems she wrote. And my sister Abshiro – she is the one who got me out of Somalia at great personal risk. I am really who I am because of these women I was raised by, and their strength.
Your book speaks very movingly of your experience of female genital mutilation. What made you want to tell that very personal story?
A lot of people, when they write about hard things that have happened to them, are entrenched in their own victimhood, in what was done to them. I wanted to tell my story a little differently. I wanted say, “I’m here to give you insight into this world, and I want to give you compassion for it too, because you cannot change people unless you understand them.” That’s the way I will unshackle my daughters, all our daughters.
You see, in my culture to be circumcised was an act of love. In our clan system, marriage connects families in a deep way, and ensuring a woman’s virginity is important to that tradition. So my grandmother knew that if we weren’t circumcised, people would pity us. They would say, did no one love you enough to look after you? I know it’s hard to understand that part of the story – but at the time I would have been [devastated] if it hadn’t been done to me. So I want to say to readers, don’t paint us with a single brush because we went through something like this. We are not only victims. Our culture is not only barbaric, and not only noble. I went through that, but I’m also a soccer mom, a Californian who’s a bit of a hippie. There is no single story about my life.
This is a story about your life as a refugee, but being a refugee occupies only a small place in the narrative, towards the end. Why was it important for you to tell a story that didn’t center around fleeing?
I have seen that when African American stories are being told in this country, it’s often about slavery. It’s about pain. That’s important, but I didn’t want people to feel there is nothing to me but tears. There’s a deep resilience that lives in me. I am OK. There was violence. But I also had a whole other life. And that’s why my book takes you through the times when Somalia was safe. I want you to see that I had crushes on boys. That I fell in love. That there was this one male camel in our herd who wouldn’t leave me alone. My life has so many stories, and not all of them are about the bad things that happened to me.
Throughout the book, you see me protesting in a small whisper against the bad in my society. I want to make you think, I want to make you question. No one in my story is crying, no one is begging for mercy from people outside. We are just asking you to think critically about why the world is the way it is.
Six years ago, when tens of thousands of people fled Syria’s conflict, Western countries panicked at the refugee flows. Politics in the United States and Europe turned sharply against migration, boosting a rise in populist politicians. Today, with more than 100,000 Afghans so far airlifted after the Taliban’s takeover, the welcome mat is wider. On Sunday, nearly 100 countries agreed to keep their doors open to those fleeing Afghanistan.
And as NATO powers end an emergency evacuation of Afghans, they have held out a carrot to the Taliban. The West will deliver humanitarian aid inside Afghanistan if the Taliban allow further migration. So far the group has agreed.
The Kabul airlift could be just a prelude. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that 500,000 people will leave Afghanistan by year’s end as the Taliban consolidate their hold. Yet a further exodus could be met with a welcoming heart as more recipient nations learn how to assist those fleeing violence and persecution.
Helping strangers in desperate need can bring something good instead of panic. Most of all, it can serve as a moral counterpoint to any killing of Afghans by the Taliban.
Six years ago, when tens of thousands of people fled Syria’s conflict, Western countries panicked at the refugee flows. Politics in the United States and Europe turned sharply against migration, boosting a rise in populist politicians. Today, with more than 100,000 Afghans so far airlifted from Kabul after the Taliban’s takeover, the welcome mat is wider.
Instead of panic, there is a compassion. One good sign: On Sunday, nearly 100 countries agreed to keep their doors open to those fleeing Afghanistan.
One big difference from the Syrian refugee crisis is that the West has learned how to better screen an exodus of refugees, which helps lessen fears of terrorists or other dangerous people joining the migration. Another change is a newly formed consensus on the benefits from migrants. In late 2018, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Global Compact on Refugees, a nonbinding agreement to better integrate refugees into host countries, enhance their self-reliance, and aid them in returning to their home countries.
As the U.S. and other NATO powers end an emergency evacuation of Afghans with ties to Western countries, they have held out a carrot to the Taliban. The West will deliver humanitarian aid inside Afghanistan if the Taliban allow further migration. So far the group has agreed. “We have very significant leverage to work with over the weeks and months ahead to incentivize the Taliban to make good on its commitments,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News.
The West is hardly alone in its hospitality toward Afghans. The tiny Gulf Arab state of Qatar, for example, played a major role as a “lily pad,” or transit point, for about 40% of the evacuees. At least 25 countries are temporarily serving as way stations. And several private groups, many based in the U.S., sent planes to Kabul and helped at-risk Afghans through checkpoints.
The Kabul airlift could be just a prelude. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that 500,000 people will leave Afghanistan by year’s end as the Taliban consolidate their hold. Yet a further exodus could be met with a welcoming heart as more recipient nations learn how to assist those fleeing violence and persecution.
Helping strangers in desperate need can bring something good instead of panic. Most of all, it can serve as a moral counterpoint to any killing of Afghans by the Taliban.
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.
As we open our hearts to divine harmony and praise to God, strength and healing replace fear and discord, as a man experienced when faced with chest pain and difficulty breathing.
Music has helped me immeasurably during the pandemic – inspired me to feel confident in the face of our collective adversity and lifted my spirits so I can help others. Judging by the number of concerts people have been attending online, many are receiving inspiration in this way.
Judging from the four Gospels, I imagine music was important to Jesus as well. He quotes the Hebrew songbook, Psalms, more than any other biblical book. Before his arrest, he and his disciples sing a hymn. On the cross, Jesus quotes the first line of Psalm 22 – a song that starts with anguish and a feeling of persecution and ends with a paean of praise.
Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, wrote, “Music is the harmony of being;...” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 106). Music can touch our heart because our being is so much more than nerves and bones and eardrums. We are, in our true being, not physical at all but purely spiritual – each of us a reflection of the Divine.
Music connects us to what we are spiritually – to the eternal harmony, rhythm, and beauty of our being and the singing of our heart. Mrs. Eddy also observed, “Being is holiness, harmony, immortality” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” pp. 492).
And the fact that God’s being is all-harmonious not only causes us to feel and respond to harmony in music but has inevitable implications regarding our health. Because all-harmonious God is truly infinite, discord in any form cannot be real in the sense of having been created by or being known to God. This gives us, as expressions of the Divine, authority for identifying discord as illegitimate and powerless to undermine our harmony (including our health).
To the degree that we understand that the law of harmony is supreme and constantly in operation, we experience and can effect healing. “Harmony in man is as beautiful as in music, and discord is unnatural, unreal” (Science and Health, p. 304).
The Bible includes many accounts that, to me, illustrate that as harmony and praise to God fill consciousness, there is no room left for fear and discord. One Old Testament leader, King Jehoshaphat, sent out singers to praise God in advance of his army, and the battle was won without his army even needing to fight (see II Chronicles 20:14-23).
In my own case, last year music helped me feel the power of the Christ, God’s ever-present assurance of harmony and wholeness, and experience healing. One evening I felt an extreme pain in my chest, and it seemed to constrict my breathing. Because I have often seen pain quickly healed through prayer, I prayed, knowing that I was, in truth, well and harmonious.
I asked a friend who is a Christian Science practitioner to pray for me. I continued to assert vigorously my harmonious status as the reflection of God. I listened to an audio recording of that week’s Bible Lesson from the “Christian Science Quarterly,” and that was helpful. And then, out of a desire to lift my thought off my body, I turned on a classical music radio station.
I listened for about 15 minutes, and then fell asleep! When I awoke a little later, I felt much better. I went back to sleep, and when I awoke the next morning, I felt fine. A day or two later I went for a 10-kilometer run, which involved, as usual, a lot of deep breathing. The problem was gone and hasn’t returned in the year and a half since. I feel that prayer led me to listen to that beautiful music, and that the powerful affirmation of harmony expressed through it contributed significantly to the healing.
Our lives glorify God and “make music” when we live in harmony. Because the divine Being that we reflect is all-harmonious, living harmoniously is the most natural thing in the world. We do this through expressing, for example, selflessness, love, joy, and patience.
We all have the opportunity at every moment to express harmony, whether we’re untying a child’s bootlaces after a walk in the snow, sending an instant message to a friend, or waiting in line to be served in a store. Music reminds us of the harmony of God and helps lift our thought above fear and disease to God’s harmonious government of the universe, which can bring healing for everyone.
Adapted from an article published in the Aug. 16, 2021, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.
Thanks for starting your week with us. Come back tomorrow to meet three 2021 high school grads who aren’t letting the pandemic define the future for them.