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.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meeting with URA, German Migration Office

In speaking with members of the RAE community in the field, the name URA (in Albanian means bridge) was mentioned numerous times. Those who are returned from Germany, either forcibly or voluntarily, and originate from four specific regions in Germany, are eligible for assistance from the Kosovo Returns Project (URA).

No surprise, the new director of URA here in Pristina was very kind. I haven't meant too many Germans are aren't wonderful people, at least on the surface. What was significant about the meeting was this sense that URA is indeed a helpful assistance organization for those returned, something that I wasn't so sure about after meeting with the struggling and suffering RAE individuals in the towns we went to in June.

Everyone who is returned receives emotional counseling, regardless of the region they originate from in Germany. But only those from four specific regions receive financial assistance, which is a per person budget, not per family, but per person in each family budget that is available until that budget is exhausted. Returnees from the federal states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Niedersachsen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, and Sachsen-Anhalt fall within the financial assistance bucket. Those who return voluntarily receive additional benefits, namely, assistance in starting up a business. Asked why only certain regions, the woman said it is a political decision and not something she can speak to directly.

One question I wanted to have answered was what seemed to be the ruthless way the German civil police approached the RAE at the moment they were deported. Reports of arriving at odd hours, giving the people no time to collect their belongings, etc, had me imagining scenes from world war II movies when the Gestapo yelled at Jews to raus! raus! schnell! when they were being deported. This is not the case apparently, as I was told that the RAE individuals all know what's coming. They are informed of their status in the country ahead of time, have an opportunity to leave before the actual deportation incident occurs, and, I was told that many RAE arrive at the airport in Kosovo with luggage bags, which if true, would indicate that they have some time to pack and bring their belongings with them to some degree.

I am not doubting the stories RAE individuals shared with me, but it is important to gain as many perspectives as possible to build context around the entire situation. For certain, the RAE families are living in extreme poverty with very little hope of improvement.

With regards to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the woman at URA did say that in her experience with them, they seem to believe that everything is moving along swimmingly with the Action Plan, something that she knows is simply not true because she, as well as some of her colleagues, have been out in the field and have seen first hand, like myself, that these people are living in squalor.

Therein lies a major point: the Ministry does not send people out to the field to check on returnees. They do not appear to have their finger on the proverbial pulse, and unfortunately, this is not an area I asked the gentleman about during my short visit with him at the Ministry. That should be an additional recommendation to be made to improve the process of 'reintegrating' RAE, if integration is even possible.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Interview with Ministry of Internal Affairs

Having the Ministry of Internal Affairs accept an interview request about the plight of the RAE communities, I think, is a big deal. The organization I am working with said they had requested meetings with the MIA numerous times without much luck in securing an interview. I didn't approach the ministry from an NGO angle, however; I went at them as an American graduate student conducting research on RAE in Kosovo. That got me the interview, and today I had about 20 minutes with the director of the Department of Asylum, Citizens and Migration and a member of the Board of Repatriation.

Not surprisingly, the gentleman does not see the same picture as those who are working on it from a civil society level. I felt very fortunate that he was giving me his time, so I did not push the issues that I feel need pushing. I'm a guest here for a very limited time, so I chose to take what he said with a silent grain of salt rather than asking follow up questions to his assertions.

Some of the things he said reveal an indication that the government has its heart in the right place. For example, "we are responsible for the citizens of Kosova. Everyone is treated equally." It's a wonderful thing to say, but of course, this is not what's happening across the country to minorities, especially those in the RAE communities, who suffer discrimination across all facets of daily life on earth.

When I asked what he thought the MIA could do better, he gave what I think is a very honest answer. The weakest link in the process, in his view, is at the municipal level, an area where they would like to intervene and make some improvements. This is consistent with what I've heard elsewhere. Apparently, some municipal officers are not clear on how to prepare a social assistance request that would be sent to the MIA, so the requests do not get sent, or they get sent with incomplete information, dragging the process out even longer.

He also admitted, when I asked if he felt the country has the capacity to handle returns, that there are some problems the government has to face. He admits they can only give so much support, but also said the goal is not to have "a passive population." Meaning, he wants to get the children enrolled in school and the adults employed, rather than having them do what they are doing now, sitting at home all day, waiting for social assistance to sustain them. What is not clear then, is how they plan on doing that, even with their Action Plan.

Discrimination among the majority population remains a major obstacle, not just in Kosovo, but in Europe as a whole. In my view, there needs to be a major campaign put forth to educate the majority population about RAE. And with that, an incentive for hiring and enrolling, and with that, a zero-tolerance policy against anyone who discriminates against RAE in a way where the evidence of discrimination is clear, like school segregation, for instance.

As a whole, he believes the Action Plan is successful so far, another statement that does not reflect what we saw out in the field. Changes for RAE communities is slow, continuing their isolation from the majority population, and continuing their cycle of poverty.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Interview with Ashkali Member of Kosovo Parliament

I spent an hour with the Ashkali member of Parliament, Etem Arifi yesterday to gain his perspective on the situation in Kosovo as relates to RAE communities. He was accompanied by Qazim Rahmani who serves as a political advisor in the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare here in Kosovo.

Their point of view, not surprisingly, is grim. They covered the Action Plan put in place to aid RAE communities integrate into greater Kosovar society ("a civil society creation that didn't go through the Assembly"), the institutions responsible for the deplorable conditions returned RAE are living in, the actual act of returning RAE individuals to Kosovo in the first place, the bureaucracy surrounding assistance due those returned from Germany and from elsewhere, and talked of their dismay over the lack of response and even respect from the Office of the Prime Minister.

They discussed one case where a returned individual submitted their request for social assistance to a municipal office, but those who must decide on this individual's eligibility meet once every three months. Both men expressed outrage at this and said they are trying to address the process by which individuals receive social assistance with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They are recommending that the board that assesses these cases meet once a month in order to deliver much-needed social assistance to returned individuals more urgently.

They also discussed what I have heard here several times now: that Kosovo is accepting forced returns from Germany simply in the interest of Kosovo, for the country wishes to be seen as an equal partner in Europe so it can expedite the recognition process stemming from its 2008 declaration of independance. The problem with that is that Kosovo does not currently have the capacity to handle forced returns, both in financial terms and in governmental structural terms. So returns are left with what I have seen over the past week in the field: lack of sustainable accomodation, lack of food security, lack of employment opportunities, lack of health care, and a lack of equal integration with others. Perhaps the strongest comment he made was that he sees RAE communities in Kosovo as "victims" of Kosovo's state-building initiatives: "They don't give priority to RAE, they want to make the Kosovo state equal to Europe."

With regard to Germany, they said they are trying to arrange a meeting with Angela Merkel in an effort to address the forced returns from that country, both in terms of the actual act of returning people, but also the way in which the act is carried out by the civil police there.

The men cited a recent UNICEF report that states from 2001-2010, 1,483 cases of forced returns have occured, where 85% of the children returned have not been able to attend school here. The obstacles are huge: language barrier, lack of integration in Kosovar society, and the "school ambience" is different in Kosovo versus what the children experienced in Germany. Children also suffer due to lack of available sports activity and culture, features they were able to experience in German society according to Mr. Rahmani.

Both men predicted that "Kosovo will get worse" for RAE communities. Without support, RAE communities will experience difficulties their whole life. "People will suffer always...without education, all doors are closed for that person."

Sunday, June 26, 2011

RAE Field Interviews

Last week I visited several Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian (RAE) settlements in Kosovo, with an additional one scheduled for tomorrow. It goes without saying that the poverty, hopelessness, and perhaps most glaringly, the helplessness, that permeates these settlements is palpable. And to think that many of these communities are "settled," rather than in camps, which does exist just outside Prishtina in one known instance, is only more shocking; how much more severe is the problem elsewhere in Europe? We know from NGOs and the like that the problem is indeed severe, and perhaps most alarmingly, progress is slow, if there is any progress at all.

In two instances, the people we talked to didn't look any different from what people in NYC look like. The way they were dressed and the tone of their skin color would allow them to fit in on a Manhattan street, putting aside the obvious issue of language. But this is what I thought as I looked at them - they don't look any different from the melting pot that is NYC and here, they are pushed to the margins of society, with little hope for a better future.

I am seeing several areas where help can be offered based on the interviews granted. First and foremost, because we are meeting with people who were forcibly returned from Germany, and in one case, from Switzerland, I am discovering that the return process is entirely broken. Perhaps it was never whole in the first place. There is a clear opportunity to improve the process from when each returned individual/family gets off the plane in Prishtina. Some people get a little help from URA, but it appears to be inconsistent in terms of what is offered, if anything is offered at all. Plus, it is clear that the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) needs to play a more active role in aiding those who are forcibly returned. Many speak of need for accomodation, food assistance, and of course, employment. My hope is to arrange a meeting with URA and with the MIA to speak more about what each party does for these people once they land in Kosovo. But most importantly, if MIA is seen as the anchor for these returnees, we need to understand why it seems that they are not holding themselves to the 2009-2015 Action Plan put forth by the Kosovar government, if we are to believe what these people who we interview have said.

Another obvious area to improve forced returns is to make clear to them what documents they need to turn in to each Municipal Officer, officials in each municipality who are charged with sending in a request to the MIA to help these individuals make it once they return to Kosovo. I learned that, for example, in Ferizaj, that the Officer cannot submit requests because the person making the request cannot provide all the needed documents.

This is yet another problem, where if someone was born in Kosovo before the '99 conflict, their birth certificate probably no longer exists. If that is the case, then they cannot provide that to the officer, who then cannot submit a request for assistance to the MIA. I also learned that for those families who have a young child who was born in Germany, because the German police do not give more than 10 minutes for the family to leave their homes, nor do they provide a warning letter for fear the family might "escape," these people leave Germany without their children's birth certificates and other important documents.

Putting the difficulty of obtaining one's own documents aside, to mitigate the confusion for what each person must submit to the municipal officer, we believe a one-sheet should be produced and provided to each returnee once they land in Prishtina in the future. Minimally, they will have a document that provides them with some direction in terms of how to ask for help from the Kosovar government.

This all boils down to bureaucracy, of course. But perhaps what is so alarming is how the German civil police approach these people in Germany. They send no warning letter in most cases; they show up at odd hours, such as 4am or 5am, since at these times it is assumed everyone in the household is home; and, they enter the home and give the people 10 minutes to get their stuff and they take them to the airport. Sounds a lot like the Nazis from the Holocaust, where Jews were given no time to grab their belongings. Except, instead of going to the airport to be sent back to wherever they came from, they were sent to a ghetto or a concentration camp or a death camp. It's a shame to hear such things about Germany, a fine country and a fine people; a society that has gone out of its way to accept responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime.

There's still more information I would like to collect, first through a meeting with URA, then through a meeting with the MIA, something I'm told might be difficult to get, and, a hopeful meeting with the Roma member of Parliament, another meeting I'm told might be difficult to arrange, but there is no harm in trying. From there, I hope to create a proposal or two and hopefully have something published in a newspaper here. But first things first, I have to schedule the meetings.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mitrovica Roma Settlement and Education

I had my first opportunity to visit a Roma settlement today, this one in Mitrovica, the divided city where one side of the bridge is home to Albanians, while the other side is home to Serbs, with the bridge itself guarded by heavily armed men keeping watch.

This particular settlement is made up of Roma who for the past 10 years were 'housed' in camps where lead poisoning was a common problem. The Roma population was only recently moved to what are now more modern housing units (it's all relative, I realize).

The settlement now includes a Learning Center, implemented by the Roma and Ashkalia Documentation Centre (RADC), the NGO I am currently working with during my stay in Kosovo with funding contributed by Soros. The Learning Center is equipped with what could be considered modern classrooms, perhaps 4-6 of them, with modern furniture and several fully outfitted HP computers. Sitting in one of the classrooms, I can see drawings on the wall done by the children, with one of drawings saying "Enjoying English."

We had a meeting with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), which is asking the RADC to take over its educational activities it has been managing. There is currently close to 150 Roma children attending the Center, with another 50 or so to be included once the DRC completes it transfer of its educational activities over to the RADC. The children are taught by locals who don't necessarily have a diploma, although that is said to be changing slowly.

While I did not have my camera with me, as we walked the grounds I felt that even if I had one, it would be an injustice to take photos. Roma settlements are not tourist attractions; while they consist of sights I may never see living in the US (although I understand Native American reservations are in very bad shape), trying to capture their despair on camera amounts to poverty porn in my mind.

Next week, we have scheduled 4 visits to the field to interview several Roma families around the country for monitoring and evaluation purposes. I imagine it would be a prime opportunity to capture the situation in images, but it is something I will first ask permission for rather than assuming it's okay to snap pictures.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Forced Repatriation of RAE Communities

In Kosovo today, the Kosovo Center for Gender Studies hosted a conference on the forced repatriation of women Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities. Forced returns, many of which are occuring from Germany recently, creates difficulties that are nearly unparalleled. Most RAE leave Kosovo for better opportunities elsewhere, selling their belongings to finance the move, only to find themselves forcefully moved later on. What's more, a UNICEF representative highlighted a very powerful point: those RAE children who were born in a place like Germany and spend some 12 years there only know Germany. They speak German, they think German, et al. To be forced to move to Kosovo, without any recourse, creates such hardship that the cycle of poverty becomes impossible to break.

The UNICEF gentleman also talked about the "revolving door" phenomenon, which is where a family will be forcefully moved to Kosovo, will find no opportunities to build a life because the government has failed to account for their arrival; the family will then move again to places like Serbia, Romania, or to another western European country to find opportunity only to find themselves in an endless cycle of forced relocation and perpetual poverty.

Many of those in attendance were from civil society and understandably were passionate about the topic. When s rep from the Ministry of Education presented, the discussion period took on a tone of heavy-handedness, as many in civil society expressed frustration over the ministry's policies and inability to meet the needs of Roma, Ashkali, Egyptian individuals, both those that live here and those that are forcefully returned. The ministry is taking steps to introduce Roma language teachers in an effort to integrate Roma children better into the education system. The UNICEF rep complemented Kosovo on those efforts, but warned that that will not solve the issues experienced by the RAE community in gaining an even-handed education in Kosovo, one that will propel young Roma to university levels and to a place where the cycle of poverty can cease.

On a related topic, it was a pleasure listening to people passionate about a topic that is about real life issues. The discussions were not based in theory - they were based in on-the-ground facts, backed up with data and anecdotes. To see these civil society workers express their outrage at the difficulties they experience everyday in their efforts to help these minority groups was wonderful. It was very different from sitting in a marketing conference, or, in my even younger days, sitting in music industry conferences, where the issues at hand were and are meaningless, and tend to be grounded in theory. It's refreshing to experience people discussing the welfare of other people, especially those who come from a different place.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Transitional Justice in Frmr Yugoslavia

I had the opportunity to meet with the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) today in Belgrade, Serbia. Since 1992, when it was founded, and when Yugoslavia was beginning to fall apart in what would be about a decade of bloodshed and ethnic cleansing culminating in NATO's mission in Kosovo, the HLC has been working to drive truth and reconciliation efforts. As I learned in my transitional justice class, truth and reconciliation is a core mechanism for post-conflict societies and a mechanism that has not been pursued formally by the parties involved in the conflict. The HLC has been on a much needed mission to change that with great successes.

For sure there's the ICTY, which like the Rwanda tribunal, was set up as a precursor to the ICC and continues to operate, as demonstrated by the recent arrest of Mladic. But what I have learned over the past day or so in Belgrade is that Serbia, the aggressor in the Yugoslav wars during the '90's, is not and has not done anything on a societal-wide basis to account for its actions during the wars with its neighbors. Prior to the meeting with HLC, I met with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, who confirmed that in today's Serbs schools, youngsters do not learn about Milsovic, Srebrenica, Kosovo, etc, a seemingly first step towards taking responsibility for one's tragic past. Unlike Germany, which is perhaps the model for how best to address a society's fractured past, Serbia does not see its past in a negative light. In fact, it believes it was in the right to carry out the conflict, that it did no wrong, and that all actions were justified. The political will to challenge this belief does not exist, and clearly, the people of Serbia do not believe there's any need to put pressure on their politicians to take a formal approach at addressing the country's recent past.

I asked the woman if the EU would use TJ as an additional condition for Serbia to achieve membership in the EU and she said that would not happen. With the arrest of Mladic, the question of whether or not the issues surrounding Kosovo would hamper Serbia's rise to EU membership seems unanswered at the present time. Outside of that, for the EU to accept other nations, it would seem logical that the EU would apply some pressure to instill in Serbia the need to recognize its past wrongs and strive to build an informed population about the need for tolerance of minorities. While Serbia will have to meet a number of requirements to achieve their goal of membership, if the West sees itelf as the carrier of all values and a home for the oppressed to seek shelter, then accepting a country into a framework brought about as a result of WWII would be acceptable under one condition: that the country in question embraces such values and open its doors to all, including Muslim, Roma, Jews, and others who originate from a different ethnic/racial/religious background.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Mladic Arrest

I don't know if it's considered odd or not, but when I logged on to facebook this morning just before 9AM and saw the link a friend posted about the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the author of the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, I let out a small cheer, the kind most people let out when their favorite baseball team clinches the pennant. After 16 years on the run, hiding, like bin Laden, more or less in plain sight, this guy will finally face justice at the ICTY.

Like the capture of bin Laden or Hussein, or the recent decision about John Demjanjuk and others before them, now that Mladic will receive his punishment for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, one hopes it provides some comfort to the heirs of those Muslim males who were annihilated in Srebrenica on that July day 16 years ago, simply because they were Muslim.

This means a lot for Serbia, a place I'll be flying to in 5 days before heading down to Kosovo a few days later. Joining the EU is of high importance to Serbia, with the capture of Mladic representing a very big obstacle. With that out of the way, there remains one more fugitive on the loose, Goran Hadzic, and the very big question surrounding Kosovo. The latter issue is by far the more complicated one, where Serbia simply does not want to let what it calls its "cradle" to fall away to the Albanians.
Talks about the future of Kosovo almost mirror those that keep Israel-Palestine in the news: how do they split the land?

But Serbia is not being a very good sport about all this, as demonstrated by their reluctance to join President Obama in Warsaw this weekend, simply because Kosovo's president will be on hand. Romania will also not be attending, for it does not recognize Kosovo's independence for fear that it could set a precedent for Romania's large ethnic Hungarian population. But for Serbia, if you really want to join the EU, and you want Brussels to view you as a cooperative, modern, Western-leaning state with the values to match, doesn't treating your counterparts in Kosovo with a greater deal of respect play in your favor?

The Mladic arrest is long overdue, but so is solving what is a forgone conclusion. Kosovo is an independent state and should be recognized as such, home to an Albanian majority, but with Serb enclaves. The two parties must reach an agreement on how they can live side by side and work to join the rest of 21st century Europe where disagreements over land have largely become a thing of the past.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Kosovo School for Roma Children

It was brought to my attention a couple of months ago a new make-shift school in Kosovo for Roma children. The school is run by Elizabeth Gowing, who's blog can be seen here. Elizabeth engages in lobbying efforts to change policy that forbids Romani children from attending the 'normal' schools where the majority population attends. This kind of segregation is not unique to Kosovo, as the Czech Republic is well known for putting Romani children in schools that are more appropriate for learning-challenged children. Roma children do not fall into that category, but are put there anyway in order to satisfy the xenophobic moods that permeate the halls of policy makers and the public alike.

A classmate of mine went back to Kosovo in March to continue research on her thesis and visited this school, returning with some photos of the kids taking part in a lesson. The building has no heat or electricity, so wearing coats indoors is the norm for these kids as they go about trying to learn something, so maybe, one day, they can break out of the cycle of poverty that is the norm for Roma throughout Europe.

As the blog explains further, some children have apparently lost there right to go to school because they missed the first two years when registration was open. Now, if they want to get in, they have to pass a test, which they can't pass without going to school. To run these classes, Gowing has calculated that it costs about 18 GBP to educate a child per month. All money is collected through donations, and the school is run by volunteers exclusively.

One would think that if the US can desegregate its society, bringing together Caucasians and African-Americans, then Europe can figure out a way to break out of its discriminatory ways and bring minorities and majorities together. It remains to be seen, after all it has been through with its genocides and campaigns to ethnically cleanse certain areas, if Europe, in this case the Balkans, can accomplish such a lofty goal.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Roma Rights in Kosovo

In about a week I go to Kosovo to complete my MA in International Affairs, where I'll be working with the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society on Roma rights. The more formal name for their mission is the Government Implementation for Integration of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian Communities.

I first became interested in Roma rights in 2008 when I was planning a trip to Slovakia. The guidebook mentioned Roma numerous times, and I am convinced I saw them as I drove through the countryside. In August 2009, reported that Madonna was booed in Romania for calling out her fans over their discrimination of the Romani people. The clip can be viewed on youTube, where doesn't receive full support from her fans. Later in 2009, motivated by the Madonna clip and by my trip to Slovakia, I did a research paper on the issue for school, leveraging the ERRC and other European sources, specifically the OSCE.

Today I came across this article on, about a Roma woman in Kosovo fighting for Roma rights. I've since tried to reach out to her through facebook in the hopes of meeting with her once I arrive in Pristina. My vision for what I would like to do in Kosovo is a big one.  I'm a strategic thinker, someone who likes to make a big splash and see outcomes from my work. My hope is if she'll meet with me, she can provide some guidance on whether or not I can make happen what I would like to make happen there. It would be tough for sure, being there for only eight weeks, but I am going in determined and optimistic.

The plight of Europe's Roma population is one of great interest to me and something I can see working on as a career. Fighting to help people rise out of poverty, gain access to health care and education; and their right to live as people among people, is a noble cause. It's one I hope to be a part of as I make my way through the final six credits of this degree and hopefully begin a new, fulfilling career in the international affairs/social justice field.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Disagreeing with Moore

Michael Moore is one of the most valuable voices in America, in my view. Some, especially on the right, like to call him controversial. I think it's an interesting dichotomy: America is said to welcome disagreement and dissent, but when someone from within criticizes the country, people lash out and label that person unpatriotic and other words not suitable to print here.

American society is a violent one when compared to other advanced nations. Moore's Bowling for Columbine showed that and backed it up with evidence, the way Moore backs up all his documentaries with evidence. And yet, Americans seem to have a difficult time confronting the wrongs in our society; they don't seem to like hearing the absolute truth, probably because they are uncomfortable with the truth. So when someone like Michael Moore or Samantha Power criticizes the American Way, they are labeled controversial, unpatriotic, and so on.

I agree with Michael Moore on almost everything. Is the American health care system not a serious problem? Has predatory capitalism not driven many Americans, and the country itself, into a serious hole? Did the government not lie the country into an unnecessary war in Iraq? Is America not a violent country compared to Canada and other advanced nations when you take into account all the numbers on gun ownership per capita and gun murders per capita?

With all that said, Michael published an article this past week about OBL, and his belief that OBL should have been captured and put on trial. It's not his point of view that I disagree with, although I do think putting OBL on trial would have been a circus we can all do without; it's his comparisons to the Nazis and the Japanese that bother me - they were put on trial, given their time in court, and put to death or in prison for their crimes. Using that logic, OBL should have been treated the same way.

Putting the Germans and the Japanese on trial, in my view, is entirely different than putting OBL on trial. First, the governments of Germany and Japan were legitimate governments. They were bad governments, but there are bad governments today; the US, one way or another, still manages to deal with bad governments, even Iran, done through the Swiss. OBL was a terrorist. The US does not negotiate with terrorists. But the US does negotiate with governments it doesn't like (I realize that can be argued. The Bush Admin chose to ignore governments it didn't like, using the 'silent treatment' as a form of punishment. That got the US nowhere).

So if the US treats terrorists different diplomatically, doesn't it stand to reason that the US should treat terrorists differently when faced with the dilemmna of kill or capture? It is here that I disagree with Moore - he's equating bad guys with bad guys, but terrorists are not considered just bad guys by the US, they are considered barbarians, not worthy of diplomacy, negotiation, or consideration. While the US should work within the frameworks of international law when dealing with terrorists (in other words, torture is wrong and useless no matter who the bad guy is), it also must function with some degree of ruthlessness as if it were at war. The attack on the US was an act of war (if it were a government doing the attacking on 9/11/01, you have Japan attacking Pearl Harbor as the precedent), so the response, killing OBL, was carried out viciously, as a means to save future lives (think: bombs dropped on Japan) from further attacks.

This latter point is another reason why drawing a parallel relationship between WWII and OBL doesn't work: dropping the bombs on Japan was done to save American lives, those troops who would have had to invade Tokyo to force a surrender, and to end the war once and for all. It accomplished both ends. Because OBL and his ilk are not a regime, killing him hasn't ended anything. While it may help to save lives in the near term, no doubt his buddies are continuing to find aways to attack the US without his presence, and sometime in the future, either here in the US or overseas, they will succeed at killing Americans. This 'war' is not over, because it's not a war between governments, there will be no surrender, no V-J/V-E Day. As such, the killing/capturing of OBL should not be viewed through the WWII lens. I respect Moore a great deal; we need his voice in a country that leaves people behind in favor of profits, but I do not agree with the comparison he has drawn on this topic.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Nearing the Finish Line

Boxing up a lot of my school books and readings, looking at the dates on some of the materials, it really hits home. I am 90 days away, for the most part, from being done with my MA in International Affairs, a journey that started in January 2009, or perhaps more accurately, in September 2008 when I attended the information session.

So many images are clear in my mind from those early days. In fact, August 2008 is very clear in my mind - that was when Russia invaded Georgia. I can still see myself getting out of my car in New Rochelle, walking to the train station and having the newsreader's voice on 880 buzzing in my ears. He was quoting Condi Rice who had given a stern warning to the Russians over their "disproportionate" response to the Georgians. I remember thinking how nice it would be to do work that mattered, that was significant, that had meaning.

I had looked into international affairs in May 2008. I called CUNY's chairperson, who didn't return my call. I even remember the person who answered the phone asking me if I lived in New York, because that would have an impact on tuition costs. I recall typing 'international affairs careers' into google to see what it returned in an effort to get a sense of what the field was like. I dismissed it all, simply because the guy at CUNY didn't return my call. And then Russia/Georgia happens, and that changed everything. I began looking into the field a little more, found the information session at the New School on, I think, September 15, 2008. I walked out, excited, feeling this could be transformative.

Two and half years later here I sit. Amazed I've made it this far, sad that all this time has passed, exhausted at the hustle and bustle I have put myself through. But I felt I had to make a change, so I did it, and the moment is getting closer, the days passing by in a blur.

I think back to 2009 - the Fulbright, the Polish, that summer, looking at other schools. Everything seemed so far in the future, and I had a well-paying, albeit very unsatisfying job. It's easier to say you are making a career change when you have to pass through 2 years before you actually have to put your talk into action. That's what I'm facing now.

Reflecting on these past 27 months, the memories are as bright as day. I still remember that first night, that first semester, reading Leviathan as I was doing my laundry, going to buy Marx in Forest Hills on a sunny day,  writing the paper on Yugoslavia; reading Polanyi, still in New Rochelle, overwhelmed at the volume of reading assigned each week. As I put these materials into boxes, I tell myself that now that the pressure to get these pages read is no longer, I should go back to read much of this material. Read it slowly, over time, the way I would read any book. Absorb it, enjoy it, reflect more carefully on what it is telling me. I did my best to read everything that was assigned; since I was paying for it, I felt the need to fulfill my obligations to myself.

Ninety days from now, I will be packing my bags in Kosovo after 8 weeks there. I will be readying to make the trip home, preparing to give a short presentation on my work there on September 9, in the same hall where the information session took place in what would be almost 3 years ago to the date. Symmetry is a wonderful thing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Polish vs French

I've been learning French this semester for several reasons, with work and career the primary concern. Spanish would be much easier to learn - I took three years of it in high school, and in New York, like many other places in the US, Spanish is heard and spoken widely, providing the learner with some immersion, certainly more immersion than one would find with many other languages, French included (although there is no shortage of French in New York either).

But I chose French not just for work, but also because of my obsession with Europe, living a fantasy of someday residing in France, Belgium or Switzerland. There's nothing really stopping me from going to either one of those places. The question becomes, how does one find work in a new country where one isn't a citizen? By work, I mean substantive work, not just teaching English, which many in Western Europe are learning from a young age anyway.

Comparing French to my year of Polish study, Polish is clearly easier to pronounce. Slavic languages are phonetic, so as long as a person knows how the letters sound, they never change no matter where they are in the word, unlike English, where non-native speakers can become frustrated when confronted with short and long vowels, and the letter c, which in a word like 'concern' sounds like a 'k' and an 's'. French on the other hand, is quite different, and without hearing the word pronounced the first time, a person can do quite well in embarrassing oneself. The silent letters, coupled with the nasal sounds combine to make the uninitiated look, well, uninitiated. Both languages are pleasant to the ear - Polish can be described as "flowery," while French just seems to flow from the tongue and when spoken fluently, might be one of the more prettier languages to listen to. French is also nice, in that one can see the relationship it has with English. I don't know which language came first - that would require doing some genealogy research on England and France to reach a conclusion.

Slavic languages, in the majority of cases, do not translate when given a simple look-over. Outside of words like mleka or woda (milk, water; ironically, in French, milk and water are not even close to the English translation), it's a completely different way of thinking, and where definite and indefinite articles do not exist.

I also now understand why Spanish and French are often mentioned in the same sentence. As romance languages, they are very much alike, and in my time learning French, when I look at Spanish words around New York, I see the similarities. One would assume that learning Spanish becomes easier once they grasp French and vice versa, just as learning Polish helps a person learn other Slavic languages. Stating the obvious, language families makes learning a bit easier and expedites the process of going from one language to another. The real challenge is immersion and becoming accustomed to hearing the words to bring about fluency.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Lost Part II

I finished reading Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost this morning. Rarely has a book struck me the way this book did. Because the book is so close to home, which is to say, because I have tried to find information via travel to Poland, through, etc, and have come up empty, I can relate to what the author was going through, why he was so interested in it, and why he took it so seriously. The difference, of course, is that the author accomplished largely what he set out to accomplish. He asked the questions early enough to learn all he could about his familial roots, and when he was old enough, he began making the trips around the world to find out the details about those who were lost.

He also had a great deal of luck; it's almost unbelievable, as one reads through the pages, to see how all the pieces came together. It was a serendipitous experience, being in the right place at the right time, one clue leading to another, a seemingly unimportant detail leading to a significant finding. Just when he thought he was done with his research, he would meet one more person who could give him information, and that person would send him to another, and another, and finally, he's in the house where two of his ancestors were found hiding during the war, setting foot in the hiding place itself. Later, we learn that he finds himself standing at the very spot where his ancestors where shot after they were discovered.

I confess to feeling a sense of envy as I read through the pages. The sense of accomplishment the author must have felt when he finished his four/five year tour, visiting numerous continents and elderly survivors who knew his ancestors from 60 years prior and could remember enough to provide enough information to paint a picture that brings those lost people back to a small degree.

I would absolutely love to find out what happened to my grandmother's sister. I doubt very much I will, and of course, with so many other things to worry about, it's difficult to dedicate the time to such an effort. It is, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of searching for a needle in a proverbial haystack, especially since her sister probably, at least as far as she knows, was not in a camp, or on any deportation list that was kept by the perpetrators.

I can think of one other book that had an impact on me as profound as The Lost. And yet, the book is a work of fiction, not a real adventure capturing the lives of those in the present as they seek information about the lives of the past. The book is about Vietnam and it's call The Things They Carried. I first read the book when I was in high school, when I was captivated by the Vietnam war and when I was preparing an essay on PTSD, which at the time, was something new, whereas today, PTSD is widely accepted as an outcome of prolonged exposure to combat (among other things). I then read the book again in 2006, and it didn't bring about the same reaction I had to it when I was a teenager. I'm not sure why - while I remembered bits and pieces, especially the ending which is easily the most profound portion, I did not think reading it again after more than a decade would be like seeing a movie for the nth time, where the suspense is no longer there because the ending is known. With that said, I highly recommend it.

And so, my next step is send some names and birth dates via email to the Polish State Archives to see if I'll have any luck, once again, on finding something from the past.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Lost

After four or so years of seeing it in bookstores, I recently purchased Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost, a book about the author's quest to find out what happened to his relatives during the Holocaust. It's a little more than that, in that the author went back and researched his family tree going back to the 1800's. So he has a good handle on who was who and how all the pieces fit together. The missing piece, however, consists of the six who did not leave Poland (now Ukraine) before 1939, and who, like six million others, would come to regret that decision, assuming the decision was there for the taking.

The book has rekindled my own efforts at trying to find more about my grandmother's history in Poland, which, to this point, has resulted in the same results as those from the prior few years where I've tried to find information. I have learned where her parents are buried however, and went to Brooklyn to have a look. I also learned where three of her brothers are buried and I'll be going to New Jersey to view their monuments as well. If nothing else, my goal is to discover birth dates, and then try either through email or in person in the future, to go to the Polish State Archives to get birth certificates. The idea of going to the State Archives was taken from the book, where the author was successful in locating birth certificates; I figured I had to go to the town of Rozan and visit the municipal office there, which I did in 2009, coming away empty as I walked in without any birth dates, only names.

I also learned for certain that her hometown is Rozan, Poland, something I was starting to doubt. Her parents and brothers are buried in Rozan burial societies, which proves her memory is right. However, I am suspicious that she may not remember her original last name correctly, as when I type Brzoza in at online databases, the returns are never helpful.

Genealogy is one of those things that you really have to delve into early, for there will come a time when no one will be around to answer all the questions that need to be asked about the past. Mendelsohn was fortunate to start early, although he laments not starting early enough. He remembers, as so many of us do, being around old people as a youngster, people who would ultimately pass away, only to find out who they were later in life, discovering the wealth of familial information that was lost by not asking the questions when he had the opportunity. That's the problem, among many problems, with being young, I suppose. The answers are there in front of you, you just have to ask the question, but as a young person, you are more fascinated with toys, and maybe girls (if you're male), and sports, and everything else that surrounds one's world. Genealogy is not top of mind when a person is, say, 10 years old.

I remember in the 4th grade, Mr. Salka had us do a family tree. I remember my father on the phone with my grandmother, the one who passed away 10 years ago next month, asking questions. The assignment didn't push me to learn more, and I can't remember how far back or even what the family tree ultimately looked like once it was complete. What's worse, is that my parents never asked any questions either, which is strange to me; if you have a parent from, say, Poland, wouldn't you want to know something about her past? Or about the one sister that didn't leave Poland before 1939 and because of that, would never leave Poland and find herself among the six million?

It's unfortunate that I've let all this time pass, and that I let life and all the other things I was into get in the way of understanding the past. It's odd, I think, that I would only begin to be fascinated with this topic over the last eight to ten years, but then again, the seed that has brought this career change found its beginnings at the same time. It's been a holistic transformation, one which I find some difficulty in finding the absolute cause. My hope now is to find the birth dates of these few from Rozan, confirm their original last name, and then figure out how to approach the Polish State Archives to get birth certificates and anything else they may have available. I think others should do the same.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

JC Festival in Krakow

Ruth Ellen Gruber shares this video of last year's Jewish Culture Festival, held annually in the Kazimierz section of Krakow, the former Jewish Quarter. As she points out, the footage leans heavily on the music and doesn't cover many of the other activities that take place during the festival, such as workshops, exhibits, and performances.

Sadly, I have not been to the festival yet, and I can't go this June, as I'll be in Kosovo finishing my degree in International Affairs. It's a shame though, as it looks like an extraordinary event for anyone interested in European Jewry and the rich heritage found in places like Poland. It's also wonderful to see Poles involving themselves in Jewish culture; many of the Poles who attend, I assume, are young, and probably haven't met many Jews, unless of course they've traveled to places like New York or Israel. I might be speaking way out of turn - I like being wrong, though, as being wrong usually means you learn something new! And as I've said before, it's important I think for young Poles to understand and recognize the pivotal role their country played in the lives of the Jewish people and in the lives of the Polish people over the last 900 years or so as well. It's all very fascinating and worthwhile to explore.

20th Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland from Jewish Culture Festival on Vimeo.

Tsunami Video from Japan

Shocking video from the earthquake in Japan. Something out of one of those Hollywood disaster movies we've grown accustomed to living in the U.S.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Changing topics, here is a great broadcast from's Richard Engel. Journalism is a great way to be a witness to history, and I often envy Engel for the assignments he covers, the access he is afforded as a member of the press, and his expertise in presenting the information. Broadcast journalism, I assume, has as much to do with what you look like as it does anything else. Print journalism not so much, of course; either way, it's a wonderful way to see the world, witness history, and be part of something significant and meaningful.

Interview w/ Polish FM

A fascinating interview came out of Israel today, where Ha'aretz interviewed Poland's Foreign Minister. Mr. Sikorski, who is married to a Jewish American woman who happens to also be a Pulitzer Prize winner and well-known journalist, speaks eloquently about Poland's past, its involvement in the Holocaust, and its history vis-a-vis the Jewish people. I love reading about high-level officials like this, for I feel it's enlightening to see how they view their country's past and how they interpret the events that brought Poland to its knees 70 years ago. While Mr. Sikorski does not acknowledge that, outside the years that comprised the Holocaust, Poland's relationship with its 3.5 million strong Jewish population wasn't always rose gardens, he poignantly makes clear that the Holocaust, and the death camps that live on Polish soil, were not the creation of the Polish state.

He states:
The Polish state was too weak in 1939 to stand up to Nazi Germany. It was not able to defend all its citizens. Nazi Germany carried out the Holocaust on our soil - against our will, but in front of our eyes.

He goes on to speak about Poland's friendship with Israel:
Poland and the Jewish people share a thousand-year history, and ever since we regained our independence, the state-to-state relations have also increased in importance. Both Israel and Poland live in interesting and at times dangerous neighborhoods, and so both take security matters with the utmost seriousness... We would like to upgrade Israel's relations with the EU. Today Israel already has privileged relations with the EU, which includes regular summits and regular high-level contacts, but we would like to see more.

Later on he speaks about Iran, and describes Poland's position:
We do not feel threatened by Iran. We are not high on the ayatollah's list of targets. Our opposition to Iranian policy is based on the conception that theocracy is the last form of ideological dictatorship of the 21st century, after fascism and communism. This is why we also opposed the Durban II conference against racism, at which Iran intended to spread hatred and anti-Semitism. After all, our country does not lack for physical traces of what anti-Semitism can lead to.

In posting this, I realize what I wrote above is inaccurate, in that he does acknowledge anti-Semitism in Poland's history. He's certainly not direct with it, and he doesn't go into details by, for example, mentioning Kielce, or Jedwabne, or Radzilow; perhaps what is most important is that he recognizes that Polish-Jewish relations were a challenge at one time. But is that enough? Should we expect more? The author asks the Foreign Minister if modern Poland is now philo-Semitic, and his answer is fascinating:

The fact that a large portion of the world's Jews lived in Poland before the Holocaust needs to be taken into account. For generations, Poland absorbed Jews while they were expelled from other countries. The Holocaust that took place on our soil was conducted against our will by someone else. So what is happening now is simply that free Poland is returning to its natural self.

Certainly, there does seem to be a greater acceptance, (or might a better word be appreciation?) by Poles of their country's rich Jewish heritage.  Rabbi Schudrich has been quoted as saying that many Poles would like to 'do something Jewish.' The annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow is attended mostly by Poles, and I know from my Fulbright affiliation with the Foundation for Preservation for Jewish Heritage in Poland, that teachers and young people are exploring the country's Jewish heritage together. It's wonderful to read about and even more fascinating to explore in person when visiting Poland. I simply can't get enough of this!