Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Fascination with Oswiecim

Came across a blog post today written by a gentleman about life in Oswiecim, Poland. It's a small town in southwestern Poland better known by its German translation: Auschwitz.
The author was commenting on how the locals were at an ice hockey game cheering on the Oswiecim team, something that people do when they go to sporting events.

Articles like this aren't uncommon. I seem to recall Ruth Ellen Gruber writing something earlier this year about life in Oswiecim, and I recall either earlier this year or late last year a photographer having his life-in-Oswiecim photos published in The Global Post.

I've been there twice, the first time in 2007, where I didn't have the chance to venture into the actual town; I had spent 6 hours at the actual Auschwitz complex, I and II. I went again in 2009 and made certain to spend time in the town. It's a quaint little town, nothing out of the ordinary. It was there before the Nazis, home to a majority Jewish population, and it's there now, no longer home to any Jewish population.

The fascination is understandable: when I went the first time, I was blown away at the houses built maybe 100 yards in front of the Birkenau gate. All post-war build up. The thought crossed my mind: I want to check these local people to make sure they are not blind, and/or, make sure they have read their history books. Why have you chosen to live here?

I was equally caught off guard at the young people walking through the brush, having to step over the train tracks that once brought Jews and others to this place 60 or so years ago for one simple purpose: to remove them from the planet. Life was carrying on normally, seemingly without a thought about where these people were and what had happened here only feet in front of them.

And therein lies the fascination. But life does go on. The locals didn't put the camp there, nor did they participate in the activities that occured inside the camp. They live in a town in Poland, where through no fault of their own, is synonymous with all the evils that man can do upon man.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Foreign Service Officer Application Process

Small victories count, so when I passed the foreign service officer exam, something a whole lot of people do, I felt good about it. Not ecstatic, the way I would feel if the whole thing actually came to fruition. The way I would feel if I were able to get past the Narratives and get past the Oral Assessment and learn that I've been selected. That day is a long way off, and may not even be seen.

Like so many, I am now working on the 6 short essays. I've completed 3 so far - it's not all that difficult. Only 200 words, so it's not like writing those 20 page papers I had to write for school. And, I think my real-life experience is plentiful enough to be able to pull examples out of and write about them in a step by step fashion.

It's the narratives where the qualifying panel cuts the majority of applicants out of the running. I don't have numbers, nor have I seen any, but it's quite obvious. The people who make it to the oral assessment stage have something a bit more special going on where they not only were able to achieve a passing score on the written exam, but they also have something in their background where they can write compelling examples of how they've used specific skills and also have a decent enough resume where the qualifying panel can see the qualities they look for in a FSO.

It's a long wait after I submit the narratives. I won't know until late January if I am in or out. But, I'm used to waiting. I waited for the Fulbright, and a fellowship, and another pseudo-fellowship, and for the VSO's decision, and I waited for the Peace Corps. I now wait for other things over and above the FSO application process as well. It's what I do, I wait.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Career Change Challenge

He sits among the many, all those lost souls who lost their jobs the old-fashioned way, via a layoff when the economy contracted what is now three years ago. But he's different from them. He didn't get laid off, he left his job by choice to pursue work he deems more fulfilling, more engaging, more aligned with his values. Perhaps most importantly, work that is about people, not profits.

But the economy is working against his best efforts. He feels like he is wrapped in chains, stuck inside concrete walls that surround him, at least 20 feet in height. On the other side of those steep concrete walls is a moat, infested with sharks, piranha, and alligators. Past the moat resides a mine field; equipped with nothing to detect the mines, he wonders how he'll ever be able to find his way through. But no matter, after the mine field sits waiting an army of more than 10,000 men, armed with machine guns, tanks, mortars, grenades, and missiles. Finally, on the other side of that army, is the new career.

It's simple, he thinks to himself. All he has to do is break out of the chains, scale the 20 foot concrete walls, find his way through the man-eating beasts waiting in the water, navigate the unrelenting mine field, and finally, bob and weave his way through the barrage that will be unleashed upon him from the army that knows no defeat.

Once he does that, he'll have his new career.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Obama's Atrocities Prevention Board

On August 4, the Obama Administration issued a press release calling for an Atrocity Prevention Board, where the president is calling upon the US to strengthen its ability to prevent mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. As the release makes clear, the directive establishes "a standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board with the authority to develop prevention strategies and to ensure that concerns are elevated for senior decision-making so that we are better able to work with our be responsive to early warning signs."

Clearly, such an initiative should be applauded, especially given the US track record vis-a-vis genocides and mass atrocities. I suspect that Samantha Power is having an influence on the president, given that her book, a well-written and researched playback of how the US has time and again turned its head during times of international crisis, is a must-read on the subject of US non-intervention. Situations like Bosnia and Rwanda are the obvious ones in recent history, but the calamity in Cambodia following on the heels of the Vietnam conflict is also top of mind, and one cannot neglect mentioning the Holocaust, when it was known by the West what Hitler had in store for European Jewry early enough where some action could have been taken to prevent the number murdered to reach 6 million. It's known today that the intervention in Kosovo was done to prevent a possible genocide, as Milosevic was determined to create a pure Greater Serbia, whereby he was going to cleanse the former autonomous province of its Albanian population.

This directive puts the wrongs committed by the US on the table in the past and seeks to create a new framework from which the US will operate under should there be, or perhaps when there will be, the next opportunity to prevent massive crimes against humanity. It adds two key elements to the discussion, the first ensures that the US "does not become a safe haven for human rights violators or those responsible for other atrocities....such as participants in genocide, torture, extra-judicial killings or certain violations of religious freedom." The second element acts as a deterrent for groups wishing to carry out a crime by shaming them before the actual act were to take place.

With regards to the first element, watching current events one will see that the US has been fairly proactive in deporting former Nazi soldiers, with the most notable one coming in 2009 when John Demjanjuk was sent to Germany and has since been convicted of killing some 28,000 Jews at Sobibor. And I believe the US has acted on Hutu Rwandans who have sought safe haven here, with one seemingly coming to mind who was living in Texas over the past 2 or 3 years. So this directive puts in place, at least in theory, a mechanism that keeps these people from entering the US in the first place after the crime was committed.

As for the second element, Power expresses outrage in her book in at least one chapter at the lack of shaming to come out of the US government in the past. This now aims to correct that and rightfully so.

Many Jewish organizations have come out and applauded the administration for the directive, not surprisingly given the history of the Jewish people.

But if there is a concern about all this, it goes back to the question of intervention. In the Power's book, if we were to take each situation and see to it that the US intervened militarily each time, the American people would, in my view, express outrage. The US is already seen as the world's policeman; it's not something to celebrate, especially at a time when state building at home is in dire need. Given that the military is already over-stretched, and the cost for military deployment has drained the US economy, stopping mass atrocities from happening militarily seems almost out of the question. Of course, there are non-military levers that can be pulled, shaming constituting one of those, that would leave the military out of it, but not necessarily stop the atrocities from occuring. One would hope that all diplomatic mechanisms would be pulled first before sending in the military, but an adventurous president is not necessarily a rare breed.

With all that said, Obama would like to see the Atrocities Prevention Board operational within 120 days. While the directive is no doubt a lofty and admirable goal, one hopes that the US can live up to the obligations it is setting out for itself. Establishing leadership in the world is a wonderful thing, but now the US has to make good on its promises. Only time will tell if it has the political will, and the American people have the stomach, for more interventions in far away places that may or may not directly impact the United States and its national security.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Have the Terrorists Won?

While it's clear that bin Laden and his ilk would like to inflict violent harm on the USA, one has to ask the question if he's achieved perhaps the second best form of harm done unto a population. That being economic harm, the type that leaves a country bankrupt, it's people at a loss as to how to maintain a prosperous standard of living. Certainly, if I did the research, I imagine I would find quotes where bin Laden and/or his people said one of their aims was to bleed America dry economically. By driving up the cost of security measures and taking advantage of America's predictable knee jerk reaction of revenge in the form of military action and expenditures, the terrorists are accomplishing everything they seemingly hoped they would accomplish without the actual violence.

The USA has driven itself into a debt crisis, brought on primarily through defense spending in the name of payback after what happened on Sept 11, 2001. America is a very different country 10 years later, with a crisis everywhere to be seen. Indeed, the word 'crisis' and/or the word 'broken' can be attached to so much of what is ailing the US today.

The government is broken; we are in a debt crisis; the foreclosure crisis continues; the jobs crisis sees no end in sight; the health care system is broken. These are the phrases that occupy headlines and can be found in many a journalist's articles these days.

So while the terrorists have not been able to find a seam to enact another deadly attack, they have perhaps achieved their second objective: they have brought America to its knees through poor, hyper-reactive policy making, leaving the country in economic ruin. The people are no longer in fear of an imminent attack. Indeed, that is now at least tertiary, for what is now the most pressing issue among Americans is how to achieve what they achieved during the Clinton years - prosperous lifestyles living in a country that was whole and at peace.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reflections on Kosovo

What I like most about traveling, especially to places that most Americans would never dream of visiting, is the opportunity to see and absorb the differences. It's one reason why I like to rent a car and travel out to the country side in many of the places I've been to - it allows you to see life through the eyes of the locals more so than simply visiting the largest city in a given country. In the same way that visiting New York City does not give a visitor a true impression of American life, visiting and staying in a country's top city is often limiting, not just from a sightseeing standpoint, but from a day-in-the-life standpoint.

So with that said, this being my last day in Kosovo, I've been reflecting on what I've seen and there's plenty of differences to write home about. Many of them are not so positive, but Kosovo is not a wealthy place and that can be seen in daily life. But that was also what I was signing up for - the opportunity to live in a developing country for some time, doing without the comforts we are familiar with in the US and in Western Europe. It's certainly not on the same scale as living in Africa, but it's not France or Norway either.

Observations include:
  • Smoking - This being my ninth Europe trip in seven years, I know that smoking tends to be more prevalent in European society. With that said, and after being warned before arriving here that "there's a lot of smoking," I don't think Western Europe measures up to the Balkans. The Skopje, Macedonia In Your Pocket Guide says that people in the Balkans are "born smoking." That sums it up well. In Kosovo, men (rarely women I've noticed), go from establishment to establishment with a carton of cigarettes trying to earn a living. It's a habit easy to start here, and even easier to sustain since a carton of cigs is as cheap as a can of soda. When you sit down to eat at a restaurant, the ash holder (is there a formal name for it?) is brought to you just as quickly as your drinks. Indoors, outdoors, in the car, while eating, while working, in the morning, in the evening, smoking is part of Kosovar daily life no different than brushing one's teeth or changing one's clothes.
  • A je lodh? - This is Albanian for 'Are you tired?' a greeting that goes hand in hand with 'How are you?' You'll hear it in the same sentence as Qysh je (How are you) or by itself. To American ears, it's somewhat humorous and one of those cultural differences worth embracing.
  • Dogs and cats - Kosovo isn't the first place I've seen stray dogs and cats wondering around looking for food. Poland seems to have a similar problem and I recall making a mental note of it the two times I've been to that country. There seems to be more in Kosovo, however, which seems logical. There's obviously a root cause for the problem, poverty and an overestimation of what it takes monetarily to care for a pet are my guesses, but without doing the research, I am only speculating.
  • Poverty - In Kosovo, you'll sit outside at a restaurant and a girl perhaps 10 years old will approach you and give you a hug in the hopes of winning a few euro from you. This happened in our second week here to a classmate as we sat outside a restaurant. We had no idea what the intent was and we all thought it was cute until we finally figured it out. Other times, an elderly person, Roma or not, will approach, stand there with their hand held out hoping you'll give something. People ignore these beggars and they eventually go away empty-handed and continue on to the next outdoor establishment. In one case, a begger went from table to table and placed a piece of paper with writing on it on each one. I asked what it said, and was told that the person was asking for money. The establishment takes no action against these people asking for money, and because I can't remember the last time it happened to me in New York, my guess is this is something establishments in New York would never tolerate.
  • Roads - From traveling in the former Soviet bloc, in places like Poland and Slovakia, I knew what to expect from the roads here. I figured they would be narrow, bumpy, two-lanes only with a lot of passing and slow-going sitting behind trucks and farm equipment. I was right and I was wrong. Somewhere in June, perhaps it was when I rented a car and drove to Albania, experiencing the driving first-hand, I declared out loud that the roads in this part of Europe are worse than up north. Part of the reason is that Kosovo is not flat; roads curve around quite a bit, making passing more difficult and the whole driving experience more draining. 
  • Searching Through Dumpsters - In Kosovo, and no doubt in other places around Europe, it's not only stray cats climbing around dumpsters, it's also teenaged Roma. They climb inside a dumpster looking for food or anything else they think is usable. I've seen this a few times and captured it once with a few photos.
  • Dusty streets - It didn't take long for my new casual shoes, bought for the trip, to become old casual shoes. Walking in a developing country means getting a little dirty.
  • The weather - The weather in Kosovo is fantastic. While reports of 100 degree heat were coming out of New York, Kosovo's hottest day never felt nearly as hot as what people in New York were dealing with this summer and will continue to deal with through August. Without the humidity, the heat feels completely different, more like California's heat. The evenings are usually pleasant where an air conditioner was never needed. It may be what I will miss most about spending the summer here, especially after I return to New York where I am certain the air conditioner will be on full blast.
Overall, it's been a positive experience. Kosovo is an  interesting place, not just because of its status in international relations terms, but for its culture, its history, and its future prospects as an independent nation. As it grows and builds up its tourism infrastructure, the word will get out and more people will visit, creating more economic opportunity for the Kosovar people.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kosovo: Repatriating Europe’s Most Vulnerable Population

Ramiz Bardosana had been living in Germany since 1991. His children were in school and he was a model citizen, never causing trouble for the German government or with the law. But he was there on Duldung status, temporary “Tolerated” permission to live in that country subject to renewal every three months. On April 12, 2011, he was forcibly returned to Kosovo.

 “The police arrived at seven in the morning without advanced warning. I was given no time to collect my belongings; I didn’t even take my jacket. I was forcibly returned to Kosovo, given eighty euro on the plane, thirty for me, fifty for my daughter,” Mr. Bardosana told me as we sat on his front porch in Gjakovë, surrounded by his family.

 To come in close contact with the Roma, Ashkalia and Egyptian (RAE) communities in Kosovo, to witness their living conditions and to hear their stories of desperation, is to remind us of what we are capable of doing to each other. Indeed, the human race continues to find ways to subjugate populations simply for being who they are.

I’ve been fortunate to meet with several members of the RAE communities during my brief time in Kosovo this summer and have learned first-hand the difficulties they face. 

But it’s not just the adults who are suffering under the government of Kosovo’s Readmission Agreements, bilateral arrangements that regulate the repatriation process for those who have failed to achieve citizenship elsewhere in Europe. RAE children, born and socially integrated in Germany, fluent in the German language, have been forcibly returned only to encounter a fierce language barrier, social exclusion, and an end to their schooling.

 “My daughter was in primary school, my son in the ninth grade. They both speak German. My son can understand some Albanian, but he can’t speak it,” said Mr. Bardosana when I asked about his children who have not been able to attend school in Kosovo.

 Mr. Bardosana and his family live with his brother and his family, only one example of the crowded living conditions forcibly returned RAE must cope with in Kosovo. Many returnees sold their property to finance their emigration to places like Germany. To be forcibly returned to Kosovo means having to stay with a relative, an unsustainable proposition for many.

 “We are six people living in a small house without a toilet. We have to heat bottles of water to wash ourselves,” said Shpëtim Boneshta, a Roma gentleman struggling in Gjakovë.

Were you all forcibly returned? I asked.

 “No,” replies Mr. Boneshta, “my wife returned voluntarily because of a statement made by the former Roma member of Parliament. He said voluntary returns would receive benefits. It’s been more than two years and she has received nothing.”

Mr. Radoviq, center, suffers from paranoid psychosis
 In Pejë, Pastrit Radoviq, who like Mr. Bardosana was returned on April 12, 2011, suffers from paranoid psychosis, a condition diagnosed by a German doctor who prescribed medication. “The German police arrived at four in the morning on April 12 of this year. I received no warning letter. After arriving in Kosovo, I went to a doctor who wouldn’t treat me because he said my surname sounds Serbian. I can’t get the medication I need to manage this illness,” said Mr. Radoviq.

Many of those returned, unemployed with very little hope of finding work, are not receiving any social assistance from the government. In an interview with Etem Arifi, the Ashkali representative in Parliament, and Qazim Rahmani, political advisor in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, I was told that a gathering of a board of directors within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, charged to reach a decision on social assistance requests for forcibly returned RAE, meets once every three months, denying a family in urgent need of assistance with the help they so desperately require to manage their day-to-day lives.

“We are a minority here. We are oppressed and left aside. The government of Kosovo does not give priority to RAE because they want to make the Kosovo state equal to Europe,” Mr. Rahmani said.

 But Islam Caka, director of the Department of Asylum, Citizens and Migration and a member of the Board of Repatriation within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, disputes the claim that the board of directors meets once every three months.

“If the request is complete, the review of the file does not take much time. Board meetings can be held at any time and immediate actions can be taken,” Mr. Caka said.

There are some returning from Germany who are eligible to receive limited financial assistance, but it is not coming from the government of Kosovo. The URA 2 project, an arm of the German government, offers those returning from select regions of Germany pre-determined financial assistance once they arrive in Pristina.

“Everyone is eligible for social counseling no matter where they are returning from in Germany. Those who return voluntarily receive a little more assistance than those who are deported. Otherwise, there is a budget per person for those who are returned from four specific regions in Germany. Why only those regions is a political decision for which I am not able to speak to,” said Birgit Budde, residential adviser in the Pristina-based URA office.

With the advent of the Action Plan of the Republic of Kosovo for the Implementation of the Strategy for the Integration of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Communities, 2009-2015, signed on March 2, 2010 by Prime Minister Thaqi, those in civil society who work to advance the interests of RAE communities are eager to see the words on paper become reality across Kosovo. But the field interviews with those who have been forcibly returned indicate a process rife with bureaucracy, little communication between ministries or between the ministries and municipalities, and little to no sustainable support, monetary or otherwise, from the government of Kosovo once URA assistance has been used in full.

“Kosovo does not have the funds to support returns,” says Shpresa Agushi, who runs her own NGO advocating for Roma rights, “Housing and unemployment are major issues and we are not seeing any big changes.”

 Xhevahire Dervishi-Rexhepi is the municipal community officer in Ferizaj. When a returned member of the RAE community approaches her office for help, she is responsible for collecting the required documents from the individual so she can send a social assistance request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

“I cannot send a request to the Ministry without all the required documents. I am committed to supporting the people who seek help, but without civil registration and legal documents such as birth certificates or documentation of land ownership, I can only hold the request until the individual provides full documentation,” Ms. Dervishi-Rexhepi said after we met with several Roma individuals whose requests for help have gone unanswered in Ferizaj.

 When asked about the repatriation process as a whole, Mr. Caka stressed that while the government does face some challenges, he believes the Action Plan is being implemented successfully.

“Presently, the weakest link in the process is at the municipal level. We need to intervene there and make some improvements. With that said, we recognize that we are responsible for the citizens of Kosovo; we treat each citizen equally. The mechanism is in place to reintegrate these people quickly because we do not want a passive population,” Mr. Caka said.

As Mr. Caka rightfully pointed out, the government of Kosovo is the first and only government in Europe to put a plan in place to address the inclusion of RAE communities. It is significant given that the issues that RAE face in Europe are not new. Take for instance the Decade of RAE Inclusion, 2005-2015, a well-intentioned but under-funded initiative with close to a dozen countries participating. While not a signatory to the Decade, the government of Kosovo, armed with the determination to create a state where visions of prosperity and democracy are not just buzzwords but principles to live by, can seize this opportunity to become the model for how best to integrate its most vulnerable populations.

Indeed, the Action Plan’s goals and objectives are lofty and could be transformative if implemented and carried out carefully. Civil society commends the government of Kosovo for envisioning and drafting the Plan in the hopes of creating a fairer, all-inclusive society. With that said, despite Mr. Caka’s assertion that a mechanism is in place, my interviews suggest there are two gaping holes in the repatriation process that could be addressed immediately with only a small measure of political will and monetary expenditure.

 First, upon landing in Kosovo, returnees should be handed a one-sheet in their native language; it should list all the civil registration and legal documents required by the Ministry of Internal Affairs to process a request for social assistance. This would mitigate, if not eliminate, any surprises in relation to the Ministry’s requirements, thereby expediting the request and getting it into the proper hands sooner.

Second, we call upon the Ministry of Internal Affairs to re-examine their current processes and allocate the necessary funds in order to implement a comprehensive, turn-key repatriation process, beginning from the moment the family lands at the airport. Each family or individual should be met by a knowledgeable representative who can provide guidance on the repatriation process, alert the family to the documents they will need to file for assistance, and who could make themselves available for additional consultation in the future should the family need additional assistance. The representative should also conduct field visits on a quarterly basis during the initial year the family is returned to Kosovo to determine their progress and make recommendations where applicable.

I am not naïve. I know Kosovo is dealing with many complex challenges, the issue of RAE communities only one of them. But I call on those who are in a position to make a positive difference to do just that. I urge you to take this opportunity to show the rest of Europe that the government and the people of Kosovo can bring about transformative change where everyone living within its borders, regardless of ethnicity, can contribute to the country’s growth and create opportunities to build their own individual prosperity.

As Ms. Agushi correctly sees it, “We are citizens of Kosovo. We should be seen first as Kosovars, not as Roma, Ashkali or Egyptian.”