Monday, October 18, 2010

Random and Disjointed

Before my Education in Emergencies class today, the only thing making my smile for the past few days was random quotes from Firefly.  Mostly courtesy of the wonderful and amazing Jen, but also a mad product of my own procrastination and low tolerance for reading long-winded theories and treatises that have no relevance to the real world whatsoever, thus causing me to waste substantial amounts of time on and related sites rather than doing anything remotely related to work.  Yes, I know that’s a long sentence, but that’s how it tumbled out of my brain, and I have no real desire to proofread it.  

Speaking of Jen, I’m abandoning my earlier promise to protect the guilty by using abbreviations for names.  It’s just too much work.  I keep typing the whole name out, remembering that I’m not supposed to do that, and going back to fix the error.  Too time consuming...or I’m just too lazy...either way.  Also, I really think that I just wanted a reason to nickname Mo “Mei Mei,” since that’s what I call her in my head sometimes.  So that one’s going to stick.  JP2 might stick as well, since I found that particularly amusing, and I do enjoy pushing buttons...  The rest of you though?  Forget it.  There are an inordinate number of you with names starting with either “J” or “L” and it’s just too much work - especially since I actually call Laurie “L” instead of using her whole name, and that would just get too confusing with Liz, Linnea, Lisa and LeAnne.  So if you’ve done anything particularly amusing as of late, prepare to be outed.  Just sayin’.  I’m too lazy and not creative enough to protect your identity.  It happens.  ;-)

At any rate, after class today, I’m feeling a little better, and I have a [mostly] renewed sense of hope and optimism.  Which is especially ironic in that class itself was incredibly depressing.  I’ll share some of the statistics presented below, but class served to reinvigorate me and remind me exactly what I want to be doing, and why I’m here in the first place.  So with that in mind, I’ll share with you the initial story that inspired me to write last week’s entry in the first place.

We had an opportunity two weeks ago to speak with Bente Aasen, the education in emergencies director in Pakistan for Save the Children and the official UNICEF/UNESCO coordinator of NGOs (yep, never thought I’d be in a field with more acronyms than TFA had in Atlanta, but here I am).  She spoke about how for many children, ongoing conflicts were just business as usual, and growing up in a war zone was all they have ever known.  She went on to share the inspiring story that I touched on last time about women implementing “tea party” home schooling centers so that their daughters could attend school without fear of being bombed by the Taliban.  Women would organize “tea parties” at different homes each day.  The girls would travel with their mothers to the new location, and teachers would meet them all there and conduct the lessons for the day, while the mothers had tea in an adjacent room, removing any hint of impropriety from outside observers.  This kind of ingenuity, compassion and cooperation with one another is what I found to be remarkable and inspiring.  Women opening up their homes to one another to ensure that their children could receive some formal training is remarkable.  More remarkable is the effects that even simple schooling such as this can have.

In Afghanistan, 16% of all women have attempted suicide at some point in their life.  Another 65% have had suicidal thoughts, and overall, 97% of women are clinically depressed.  Even worse, with the Afghan population hovering around 29 million, there are only 8 trained Afghan psychiatrists in the entire country.  Attending tea party schools serves a vital role for these girls, allowing them to interact with their peers, and stave off some of the effects that living in a war zone can bring on.  That, combined with the fact that for every year of primary education a girl receives, the number of children she will have in the future decreases, and her likelihood of contracting a fatal disease, as well as the mortality of her children, decreases by 5-10%, is reason enough to ensure she gets an education.  All because her mother was brave enough to personally bring her to school!  I find these stories to be inspiring, and I cannot imagine what gumption it must take to daily dodge bombs and sniper fire, simply to achieve basic literacy.  It’s just absurd.

Those points made by Bente were reinforced today in class by a guest lecture from Gerald Martone, the director of emergency responses for the International Rescue Committee.  He reiterated those stats, and gave us a few new ones to chew on that I feel the need to pass along:
  • There are currently 25-27 active armed conflicts taking place in the world right now.
  • Currently, 1 in every 170 people in the world are refugees.
  • For every 5 soldiers killed in modern conflicts, 95 civilians are killed.  During the US Civil War, this statistic was flip-flopped.  Then civilians even would take picnic baskets to hillsides near battlefields to watch the action.
  • In Afghanistan, it is cheaper to buy a boy for labor than to hire one.
  • The average time a person spends in a refugee camp is 17 years.
How utterly absurd that statistics like this can exist in today’s world!  This class has really reiterated my desire to continue working in International Education, and despite all of the depressing stats Martone shared, I found his commitment to his work and his optimism that effective change can be made to be inspiring.  I’m glad he came today, cause I was in definite need of a reminder as to why I do upwards of 1,000 pages of reading each week!

On an unrelated note, after re-watching Firefly (again), busting out all week long to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog, and freaking out tonight when I missed Castle because of a CUPID training, I have determined that I’m a little bit in love with Nathan Fillion.  Just wanted to throw that out there.  Cuase I’ve totally got it bad for Captain Tightpants.  Also, no wisecracks about how I’m a member of a group called CUPID.  I’m aware of how ridiculous the name is.  Trust me, if I were in charge, instead of being the Columbia University Partnership for International Development, we’d be the Organization of Students for Intergroup Relations and International Studies, or something similarly witty.  I’ll let you work out for yourselves why that one is particularly ironic.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Kindness Inspires Optimism Inspires Kindness

The events of the past few days have conspired against me and I now feel compelled to write about them.  Not that this is an unusual state of affairs for me; I love to record my experiences so I can look back again later and laugh, be it at the comedy of a situation, or at my own hubris in thinking that I’d ever be able to control the situation in the first place.  However this time is different.  This time I feel not only compelled to write, but to share it with others.  Thus, joining the ranks of millions of others who have something to say, think they’re right about everything, and want a public forum to prove it, I’m creating a blog.  I’ve caved.  I’ll conform.  I held out in college for a while and didn’t get a facebook until L, of all people, joined up, and now I’m addicted.  I suppose the same holds true here.  I read the blogs of friends and strangers daily, and I marvel at their insights, wit and general normalcy, which always brings a smile to my face.  I hope that here I too can do one of the same for someone else out there.

Lofty goals, eh?  No promises.  One can never tell if this sort of thing will stick.  I certainly have an opinion on everything and I won’t hesitate to share it with you if you ask, so this seems like a good arena for that sort of thing.  Unless you want my opinion on where to go to dinner or what move to see.  In which case I don’t care.  At all.  Really I don’t.  S wants to go see Twilight?  Fine, I’ll humor you.  N wants to eat at The Pub?  Fine, whatever.  It’s the company I’m after, not the location.  M wants to know what I think about the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and C wants to know what I think about the freaking pot hole out on Amsterdam?  Then yes.  Yes, I do in fact have something to say.  Though again.  No promises.  This may be a one shot deal that I grow weary of – you all know how easily I can get bored and/or distracted.  (If you don't know, let me just say that...oooooohhh look!!!  Shiny!!!)

A caveat:  names will be changed to protect the guilty.  And the innocent as well, I suppose, though I don’t know exactly what they need protection from…  At any rate, first initials will do just fine.  Unless your name begins with a J, in which case I’ll have to make it a little clearer, as there seem to be an inordinate number of you.  Of particular interest will be those with the initials JP.   One of you two will have to be JP2.  I know exactly which one as well, especially since all of my Catholic friends (there are a lot) will read JP2 and think John Paul II, and I think that will push all the right buttons and be sufficiently irritating to you, and I do love to stir the pot, so congratulations, you’re now associated with the Vatican, whether you want to be or not.   J

Well, all that said, on to the main event, I suppose.

What I want to discuss is the issue of kindness and optimism, and how one sort of breeds the other.  It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the everyday madness of wars and kidnappings and political feuds that it’s easy to overlook how far acts of kindness can go, and the meaningful impacts that they can have.  Take the following examples from my weekend…

My mom came in to visit this Saturday, which was a much-needed dose of normalcy for me, and I think she had fun as well.  We hung out with A and watched football and toured my hood and did a few touristy things, and my mom became fairly comfortable with the daily routine of my new life.  So much so, that on the subway platform some clearly lost girls asked her which train went to Columbia, and she directed them to the correct line and told them what stop to get off at.  Not a big deal, just directions (though if they’d asked her how to get anywhere else, she wouldn’t have known what to say, it just happened to be the route we’d taken every day during her visit).  However we got on the train with them, and at their stop, the girls were so engrossed in their conversation that they made no move to get off.  As we passed by, she told them they needed to get off here, and they scrambled to gather their things and make it past the already closing doors.  I daily find this kind of kindness surprising, though it shouldn’t be that way.  Incidents like this should become daily occurrences.  There was no incentive for my mom to give the girls directions in the first place, much less to shoo them off the train later on when they were about to miss their stop.  She didn’t know them, had no personal stake in weather they reached their destination or not, yet she still “mothered” them and pointed them off in the right direction.

This is the first type of kindness that inspires optimism in me.  Things like this should be more common.  People taking an interest in others, merely because they are there.  Not because they expect anything in return, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.  I see occurrences like this every day, which inspires me to act the same, but I still see them not enough.  I am continually surprised when people help others for no apparent reason, and it should not be that way.  Being compassionate and caring toward others should be such a common occurrence that we are more surprised when it doesn’t happen rather than when it does.  That said, I still found the following example to be surprising.

On Sunday, the little sister, who shall henceforth be known as Mei Mei (mad props if you understand the obscure reference as to why I chose this nickname) got kicked in the shin during her soccer game.  Isn’t that what shin guards are for, you may ask?  Well, yes, but hers were starting to slip, and it was the end of the game, and she didn’t bother to fix them.  Which ended quite poorly for the poor thing if I do say so myself.  Anyway, J took her home as usual, but after being there for a bit, it was hurting badly enough that she thought she needed an x-ray.  Now, the girl has been banged up before, and she’s played competitive sports for years, so when she thinks she needs an x-ray, she’s not kidding around.   However Mom was with me, and Mei Mei has no car, student health services is closed on Sunday, and she couldn’t really limp herself out to High St. to jump on a bus to go to the ER.  So she called J back, he took her to Urgent Care, followed by a pharmacy to get some Vicoden (I wasn’t kidding when I said she knows when she needs to see a doctor), and then back to her dorm.  This may seem unremarkable in its telling, which I suppose it is, but the point is not actually about the kid’s nasty bone contusion.  It’s actually about the fact that after going home, J came back, hauled Mei Mei around, apparently did so with no complaint whatsoever, and had no real incentive for doing so.  Still don’t get why I’m floored by this particular act of kindness?  Well, J has no obligations to the sister whatsoever.  While he’s one of my good friends, I just kind of thrust Mei Mei on him and the rest of our little group and demanded that they all take care of her while I was gone.  What I don’t get is why I’m surprised that they actually do take care of her.   There is no incentive at all to give up one’s Sunday night and spend it hauling someone else’s sibling to the doctor when you’ve only known said sibling for a short amount of time.  I think I’m actually more grateful for this action than the kid is, and she’s the one who needed the narcotics…though here’s hoping she doesn’t start acting like House anytime soon.

This is the second kind of kindness that inspires optimism for me.  Unbridled compassion or kindness towards a friend, or a friend of a friend, or a relative of a friend, just because it’s the right thing to do.  There is little or nothing to gain from it, other than the notoriety of being labeled a “nice person,” so why bother?  When people engage in this kind of behavior, it inspires me to be more compassionate in my own life.  A friend needs someone to talk to even though I’m busy paper writing?  Perhaps I can step back for a moment and put their needs first, rather than brushing them off in favor of something as paltry as a paper grade.  Kindness toward your friends and their associates should be a daily occurrence, in one form or another, and it should inspire others and create optimism.  It shouldn't be something that seems so out of place and unusual.

The final kind of kindness that inspires optimism in me would take too long to discuss here.  It’s actually the original reason I wanted to post my first blog today, but I guess things here kind of got away from me, and I’ll have to write about it another time, as the length here is getting to be a little absurd (mad props if you’re still reading!).  This last kind of kindness is kindness toward a group – a kind of self-sacrifice and unity that you seldom see.  The example was from my class today where we discussed women in Afghanistan, who, in order to make sure their daughters are able to attend school without fear of being bombed by the Taliban, host “Tea Parties” every day.  Not the Tea Party you hear so much about in the news today, but rather a gathering of women who open up their homes to each other and use their living rooms as classrooms for their daughters.  The locations change daily, and the teachers and students gather for class during the afternoons while the mothers sip tea and go about their daily routine in adjacent rooms.  This type of unity and kindness toward one another was the original inspiration for this blog, and I’ll try to go in to it more next time, because I found it to be a particularly moving example that inspired me to be more optimistic about my future career.  That is, I’ll go into it if anyone’s interested in reading about it…  Though I suppose the purpose of a blog is just shameless self-promotion, and I’m fairly adept at that anyway, so perhaps I’ll post it no matter what.  Someone out there is bound to find the story just as inspiring as I do...