About Displaced Persons

Being a displaced person must be a bit easier than being stateless but is nevertheless one of the most difficult positions in the world to be in. If they’re lucky displaced persons end up in camps, themselves difficult places to be. Now the government of Iraq has ordered several camps to close which means some 100,000 displaced persons will now also be homeless. Winter being near and  coronavirus make the situation even worse. At least a million people were displaced when the Islamic State lost control of  its Iraqi territories some 3 years ago. These are the people who ended up in the camps now being closed. They’re expected to return to their former homes whether or not they want to or those homes still exist. In addition, some may be penalized for having a family member suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State or having a name similar to one who is on the Islamic State members list. Some refugee organizations have objected to the camps’ closing but the Iraqi government has not responded. And what makes this story even more notable is how little coverage it has received.

Two new books have recently come out about the difficulties endured by displaced persons after WWII, including those who were rescued from concentration camps, in finding a country that would have them. Then it was mainly Jews. Now it is mainly Moslems whether in the Middle East or the Uighurs in China, the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Add too the recent fleeing of some 200,000 Ethiopians to nearby Sudan. But no matter where it happens, the story is the same, unwanted people being driven out  or needing to flee because of politics and religion. Even the countries willing to accept some  displaced persons only accept very few. In the post war case, many ended up in the then Palestine, fighting for what became the state of Israel. There is no Palestine equivalent today, which does not lessen the problem and certainly not the moral issue underlying it.  It’s time we begin asking, what do we—as members of humanity—owe displaced persons?

Sound Pollution–an Artist’s Take and Us

The pandemic brought lockdown. The lockdown brought a different soundscape. In cities throughout the world regular sounds are absent and in some like San Francisco, one can hear birds. Stuart Fowkes a UK based artist has been mapping the sounds of cities since 2014. He’s trying to map sounds all over the world and  noticed that one thing lockdown brought out were sounds like church bells which were no longer lost in other city sounds. They could now be more noticed. To Fowkes so many sounds have been lost to noise pollution. In fact the World Health Organization  thinks of noise pollution as an environmental stressor and a public health risk. On an everyday level we may not be aware of how sounds affect us, but they do. The vibrations hit our senses as well as our bodies, and usually result in a reaction from not only our physical bodies, but also our emotional ones. Sound pollution is so much part of urban life that we forget to notice its impact. Traffic of course, delivery trucks, ambulances, other sirens, revving motors, blaring music.. each bearable by themselves perhaps, but when added to the others affect us in ways we forget to recognize much less acknowledge. It’s not hard to see that sound pollution does stress us and that stress on an ongoing basis can be a health risk. Fowkes now has more than 4000  recordings of sounds from 100 countries, and was planning to issue a report last March. When Covid 19 hit he began recording  those sounds, or their absence, and incorporated those recordings into The Future Cities Project so that we will not only know what cities sounded like before the virus, but also now. Whatever Fowkes’ reasons for undertaking that project, how sound affects us is something  we ought to think about. Some sounds can make us relax, and some interfere with what we feel and even more with our thought processes. And for those of us who are also sensitive to what is transcendent, being aware of sounds and their effects upon us is certainly a must.

Voting In San Quentin

Juan Haines and Kevin Sawyer are both incarcerated journalists who wrote for The Guardian about a simulated election at San Quentin prison in California. In cooperation with Solitary Watch, a non-profit which aims at documenting and advocating against solitary confinement, they helped with this mock election. Solitary Watch sent 1600  ballots to the prison by Express mail. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR, never delivered them. So they improvised and some 150 ballots were handmade and passed out and later 170 more were smuggled in with the explanation that since CDCR had not delivered the sent ballots, they had to improvise. Although there were some votes for Trump, Biden won. The ballots had a place for them to say why they were voting and why they voted for their candidate. What comes across, which is why I wanted to write about this, is that inmates are no different from ordinary people. They want to vote, want a voice in their elected officials, want to be good citizens, wan to participate.  “ I want to be heard” one man wrote on the back of his makeshift ballot. Another wrote, “I’d like to feel like a citizen; feel like I am important too”. In California as in many other states people in prison and on parole  cannot vote and they are still disenfranchised when they finish their sentence. The U.S. has the largest proportion of its citizens in prison, and as a whole the prison population is greater than just about any American city. Of course as the authors noted, they didn’t have to worry  about violence at the polls or even social distancing, but still they were very aware that their vote would not count. Most inmates will eventually be released and be part of the society. I’m among those who believe allowing them to vote would help create a sense of belonging, of engagement with their communities and we would all benefit.

Amsterdam’s Flower Solution

The City of Amsterdam has many canals. It also has many cyclists. It is a regular mode of transportation for many in the Netherlands, and since COVID the number of cyclists has increased. It allows people to avoid public transportation and also to feel safer than inside a car. Using some form of cycling has become so entrenched  many said they would continue it after the pandemic. The city now has more cyclists than people with something like 438 miles of cycle lanes. Those lanes are not only for bicycles but all sorts of cycles, motorized, electric, cargo and racing bikes. Before the virus lanes were already overcrowded, now it is of course worse. The problem as it is for those cities which rely on cars is parking. Lanes are often not wide enough for both parking and passage. People have been parking on the canal bridges chaining their bicycle to the fence, making it difficult for people to walk. Instead pedestrians have to walk on the street which is dangerous. It also interferes with sightseeing and with tourists since standing on the canal admiring the city becomes difficult. The answer: the city has now installed large wooden flower boxes in an effort for people not to park there. What is even more noteworthy about this story is that the flower boxes are to be tended by the homeless people who visit one of the city’s drop-in centers.

I once had a professor who was an expert on parking. His solutions, which have been adopted in several cities including Los Angeles,  revolved around charging for parking or charging  more. For those cities where charging or charging more wouldn’t have been viable, we would have found a technology oriented one. In either case Amsterdam’s answer is a reminder of how easy it is to forget simple people-based solutions—and in this case flower-based ones too.