Shining Through Strife

Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan, home to 85,000 Syrians, is the world’s largest camp, and may be on its way to setting an example for the aid community because it’s becoming a city! Well, not a city like New York or London, or even like any smaller one, but a city in the sense it is organizing itself like an urban center. To an outsider it may still look like a slum or a Rio’s favella, but to those living there, there is a sort of address system, a barbershop, a flower shop, a rotisserie take out, a travel agency… some even have washing machines and can buy homemade ice cream. Much of what they have comes from the black market and from smugglers. They do steal electricity, and the UN officials at the camp are thinking of charging a monthly fee, making some low income Jordanians living nearby envious. Of course like any urban environment they have crime. And because it is a refugee camp, residents can each tell horror stories of what they have had to live through before and after they left Syria. There’s another camp, Azraq, located in a desert like area far from anything. The refugees there fight despair, while those living in Zaatari are feeling hope—making the human spirit so evident in the camp all the more striking for shining through the strife.

The House of One

Berlin which as any WWII fan knows was divided into four sectors after the war, and which after that was divided by a wall separating East from West Berlin, is about to be the site of The House of One, a center with a central meeting place surrounded by a synagogue, a mosque and a church! Three religions in one space! The idea came from a priest who thought to build upon the site of St Petri’s church, which dated back to the 12th century, was badly damaged during the war, and which remains were later, after the Red Army liberated Berlin, destroyed by the East German authorities. The House of One is designed by architect Wilfried Kuehn, who actually won a competition. The project which has now begun fund raising will occupy Petriplatz in the heart of Berlin.

Kadir Sanci, the iman of the future mosque says that it will show the world that the great majority of Muslims are peaceful and hopes it shall be a place where different cultures can learn from each other. Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin feels that the city where so much Jewish suffering was planned can now be the city where all three monotheistic religions can show how they shaped European culture. And Pastor Gregor Hohberg looks for it to be a place for dialog and discussion even including people without faith, hoping Berlin will become an example of togetherness.

Since Muslims worship on Fridays, Jews on Saturdays and Christians on Sundays, it does not look there will be much chance for interaction, yet given today’s religious strife, the mere fact Jews, Muslims and Christians can worship within the same space is more than symbolic, it holds significance, meaning and promising implications.

Anger Not Embarassment

We might remember the story of those two young cousins in India who were gang raped, killed and hung on a Mango tree. The investigation revealed they were looking for a toilet, more precisely a place to relieve themselves, since their house had none. Worldwide, 2.5 billion live without access to basic sanitation, and that’s why this practice of open defecation as it is called, is far more widespread than we generally realize. Having no toilet forces people, including women and young girls, to walk to dark and sometimes dangerous places to find the privacy they need, and too often those are the places where attackers can hide. Attacking or harassing women in this way is therefore a problem in other countries as well, Nigeria, for example.

2.5 billion people lacking access to basic sanitation means one in three in the world, and one billion of those, or 15% of the global population is currently forced to practice open defecation. Acknowledging that this is a topic we shun and feel embarrassed to even talk about, officials from the UN Millenium campaign said that it is a subject that should make us angry not embarrassed.

If we could use the two young girls’ ordeal as a wake up call, as a spur to expand efforts bringing sanitation to those without, maybe they did not die in vain,

Voting Indian Style

As the world’s largest democracy, the efforts India made to ensure each of its 800 million registered voters had a ballot are somewhere in between noteworthy and commendable. No matter the gap in the circumstances between voting in the U.S. and voting in India, the work in the Markha Valley described in a NYT article invites comparison with practices in the U.S. Regular civil servants had to leave their desk jobs to trek miles and miles in a region high on a Tibetan Plateau to establish polling places. In the district of Leh, costs of fuel and voting awareness campaigns alone came to $1665 per voter. Normally every 1000 voters required a polling booth, but in Leh district, only 4 of its 274 settlements met that requirement. In Mombai or Delhi the logistics were simple, but in most of India, as in the Leh district, the challenges abounded.

In the US, by contrast, we are embroiled in voters registration laws, measures that are likely to restrict voting. Our turnout is already low—that in India was the highest it has ever been, thought to be about 68%– In Los Angeles recently the mayor was elected with votes from 16% of registered voters. Over a billion dollars, if not more, is projected to be spent on media ads, many sponsored by special interest groups funded by individual or others with deep pockets and sometimes private agendas— entities whose task is rarely to ensure that people vote, but to sway voters to vote pro or con a given cause or candidate.

It’s doubtful we’ll be able to get back to basics, but surely examples such as the one in India can open dialogue about a better way for us to conduct elections.